Thursday, 5 April 2012

In Two Minds

What with the increasing number of new-fangled gadgets I have about me, keeping me company and comforting me like little Linus' security blanket, not to mention ensuring that I'm only a touch of the screen away from human contact, it would seem that technology is the perfect answer to ward off any pang of loneliness. Indeed, what use are these smart gadgets, these palm-sized electronic friends and these fancy tablets that have found their home between my hands, if not to make me feel that I'm never for one second missing out on real life, that I'm never separated from my fellow humans and that I'm only a tweet away from the global conversation? Technology and communication devices are the lifelines keeping me connected with the world wide web and the big beautiful world. These objects bridge my incessant inner chatter with the incessant external chatter in a constant and congested flow reminiscent of Jakarta's Monday morning traffic. I am a vehicle in a sea of vehicles.

And yet somehow, being continually connected in this way, still fails to make me feel connected. Being stuck in a traffic jam still doesn't make me feel that I'm a part of it or happy that I'm in it. Instead, this feeling of connectedness I only find in moments such as yesterday when I decided to escape the hustle and bustle of the city to check out on a piece of land that I leased from some local farmers in Mega Mendung so I too could play farmer and indulge in a bit of tree planting. That is, if I could get around to it.

Feeling the warm morning sunshine on my face and breathing in some fresh air, a real luxury for city dwellers, while picking my way through the dirt path overgrown with grass, I truly felt connected. Not in the communication-device-in-my-hand way of being connected, but in my whole-being way of connection where I felt truly a part of my surrounding. With the solid and rather slippery earth beneath my feet, the trees and rolling green hills around me, the dark blue mountains in the near distant crowned with white fluffy clouds, and with the clear morning sky promising a fine sunny day, I felt a sense of belonging. Not only that, but I felt more aware of the different sounds entering my ear, the rustling of leaves and the chirpings and stirrings of invisible creatures from the bushes and the trees, all in the background of stillness and permanence that only nature could offer.

Getting back to my gadgets and the constant busyness and wealth of connection I could log on and plug myself into, is like stepping into another world with another reality, and with a completely different feeling. It is as if there are two different parts of me. One that enjoys tinkering around with things that stimulate my mental activity (if not intellectual), conversing, expressing ideas, having opinions, responding to comments, playing around with words and retweeting things that interest me, and the other one that doesn't say or do much, but feels a sense of contentment when just sitting around doing nothing or when taking a walk in the open air among the trees and not thinking of anything. Which is rare.

Indeed, according to brain scientist Jill Bolte, there are actually two very different personalities residing within us, with very different perspectives on reality. One that inhabits the left part of the brain and the other inhabiting the right side of the brain. She should know, not just because she is a brain expert, but because she actually experienced the two very different personalities and realities when she suffered a stroke that temporarily shut down the function of her left brain. In a Ted lecture called A Stroke of Insight, she recounted the surreal experience of solely inhabiting the right side of the brain and gave a first hand experience of how the human brain actually functions and processes information.

As we all know, our brain is made up of two separate parts, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The two hemispheres communicate via a connector called the corpus colossum, but otherwise they process information separately, think about different things, care about different things and have very different personalities. The right brain concerns itself with the present moment, the here and now. It thinks in pictures, learns through the movements of the body and processes information in the form of energy. The right brain knows itself as an energy being connected to one another through our consciousness as a part of the entire energy of being.

The left brain, the brain that we as individuals generally habit, thinks linearly and methodically, about the past and the future and busies itself with categorising and organising information. It works through associations and projections and expresses reality through language and the ongoing brain chatter that connects the internal world to the external. This is the part of the brain that makes us feel that we are separate individuals, the 'I am' that has a story and a history, that reminisces about the past, worries about the future and calculates about the present. And, according to Jill Bolte, this was the normal Jill Bolte that went silent went she suffered the stroke on the left side of her brain, 'as if someone has put the mute button on' to her internal chatter.

Now crossing to the right side of the brain, she experienced a different reality where her consciousness shifted away from her body to the space beyond where she could no longer define where her arms ended and the wall of her shower, where she suffered the stroke, began, as the molecules seemed to merge. She could no longer distinguish words and numbers as she searched through the name cards to call for help, as they appeared as meaningless patterns and pixels.

Curiously however, she felt a sense of peace, of euphoria even as the burden of being an individual with stresses and emotional baggage gave way to a feeling of lightness and of largeness - a spirit that can no longer identify her body in space, as her left brain ceased to function. Moreover, in this 'lala' land, she felt connected to all the energy that all the human family is made of and everything is whole, perfect and beautiful. Life and the world seemed peaceful and beautiful.

What she learned from this experience is, we can if we want to, choose which part of the brain we spend more time in and create for ourselves a better and more peaceful life.

Though in my case, I need to learn how to make that crossing from left to right to begin with.

(Desi Anwar: first published in The Jakarta Globe)

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