McGilchrist: The Divided Brain, II
In the past, I have defended Carlos Castaneda against charges by skeptics that Castaneda was a fraud, and that he had hoaxed the whole matter of his time as “sorcerer’s apprentice” with the Yaqui Indian brujo, don Juan Matus. In some respects that is true. But only to the extent of keeping his agreement with don Juan never to reveal his teacher’s true identity or disclose his location. Those are disguised and fictionalised, as Castaneda himself freely admitted. In other respects, the “improbable” events described by Castaneda in his many books are not fraudulent, as I have argued previously. I will not revisit those arguments here except to say that some aspects of Castaneda’s “improbable” experiences I have experienced myself, and can therefore corroborate his veracity.
If anything, McGilchrist’s summation of present knowledge of neurodynamics in The Master and his Emissary also provides further proof that Castaneda did not perpetrate a hoax, and that the “teachings of don Juan” (the title of the first book of the series Castaneda published) could be said to describe the expert manipulations by don Juan and don Genaro of the two hemispheres of the brain and their different modes of attention. That is to say, the “separate reality” (the title of the second of Castaneda’s books) can easily be seen as the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere of the brain.
I think it’s safe to say equally that don Juan the “teacher”, and don Genaro the “benefactor” were such because of the nature of the divided brain itself, whose distinct tasks it was to safeguard the integrity of the distinct mode of perception of each hemisphere, even if they didn’t actually conceive of it in that way.
Of course, neither Castaneda nor his don Juan described any of this in terms of neurodynamics, but in terms of modes of attention or perception — the “first attention” and “the second attention”, corresponding to what don Juan called “the tonal” on the one hand, and “the nagual” on the other. Here, the tonal or “first attention” refers to the mode of perception of the left-hemisphere of the brain, while the nagual or “second attention” refers to the extraordinary mode of perception of the right-hemisphere. In other words, Castaneda was being inducted into the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere of the brain, which was the domain of the nagual.
(I have reversed the terms “first attention” and “second attention” in the previous post on the divided brain in keeping with McGilchrist’s own view of the primacy of the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere. Don Juan uses “first attention” and “second attention” to describe “ordinary perception” and “extraordinary perception”. And if you had a chance to view the video of Jill Bolte-Taylor’s description of her own experience with this in LittleBigMan’s comment in the last post, you’ll appreciate that these terms are not arbitrary. Not only do the two hemispheres have different modes of perception — radically different — but also different sets of values, as well as moods).
Castaneda’s experience makes perfect sense in terms of McGilchrist’s description of neurodynamics, or even Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience of her devastating stroke. Don Juan essentially disabled or interrupted the left-hemisphere functioning of Castaneda’s brain (called “the tonal“) through various manipulations or “tricks” (including the “power plants”) thereby inducting him into the “awareness of the left side” or “second attention” (ie, the left side is that controlled by the right-hemisphere of the brain) also called “the nagual“. And in the mode of attention of the nagual or right-hemisphere, a man may become a crow (or, in my case, a fish, as I recounted in my “dream of the fish”. And I suppose the fish would now be considered my “totem animal” or “familiar”). It was this mode of perception that is referred to as being “a separate reality”.
McGilchrist doesn’t mention Castaneda at all, of course. But it follows from his own assessment that “the mode of attention” of the right-hemisphere constellates a unique world and reality that is quite different from that constellated by the mode of attention of the left hemisphere. But it is a reality that the left hemisphere finds terrifying — Nietzsche’s Dionysian. (Recall that Heraclitus recognised that Dionysus was also one of the aspects of Hades). This is also connected with something McGilchrist notes about the mood of the right-hemisphere, that it is one of tragedy and pessimism, presumably because it perceives more than the left-hemisphere allows itself to perceive. And, in fact, don Juan insisted that Castaneda keep and polish his “shields” because the shock of the encounter with the nagual could drive the tonal to depression and even suicide. So, I think it was don Juan’s task to keep Castaneda’s tonal intact, while it was actually don Genaro who ushered Castaneda into the mode of perception and the power of the nagual.
(Of course, if you aren’t familiar with Castaneda’s writings, none of this will make much sense).
In quite similar terms, McGilchrist even describes the left-hemisphere as “parasitic” on the right-hemisphere — the “master”. Don Juan described the “mind” in quite the same terms — as a parasite which he called “the foreign installation”. It is not the authentic self. Jill Bolte-Taylor discovered that through an incapacitating stroke that disabled the left-hemisphere of her brain. In Castaneda’s case, don Juan deliberately “blasted” Castaneda’s left-hemisphere mode of attention with the power plants, not because they were necessary, but because Castaneda was a “plugged up fool”. The liver cancer that eventually took Castaneda’s life Castaneda even blamed on the ingestion of the power plants.
For all his life, Castaneda struggled to make sense of what he had undergone as “sorcerer’s apprentice”. Even his very fine and insightful last statement, published as the Preface to the 25th anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan, never made the connection between neurodynamics and the different mode of cognition that was the sorcerer’s way. But it makes perfect sense in relation to McGilchrist’s description of the divided brain.
It comes through more clearly in her book My Stroke of Insight than in the video, but Jill Bolte-Taylor also saw, as Castaneda saw, “energy as it flows in the universe” as the basic reality and human beings as fundamentally energy entities (something of that is made explicit in the video). Somehow, the left-hemisphere of the brain translates this perception of the flow of energy into the perception of solid objects with defined boundaries and definitions. This is not much different from Blake’s “vision” of energy. But Blake lived more or less permanently as a citizen of the “first attention” of the right-hemisphere of the brain. And Nietzsche’s vaunted ability to “switch perspectives” between “background and foreground effects” was almost certainly a statement about his relative dexterity in switching between the right and left hemisphere modes of perception, or, in his terms, the Dionysian and the Apollonian consciousness.
When you come to appreciate Castaneda’s experience in terms of neurodynamics, as described by McGilchrist, it doesn’t seem particularly kooky at all. It’s just the “suchness” of things.
In my next installment on The Master and his Emissary, I’ll want to turn to its relevance for the current rehabilitation of the Hermetic Philosophy (too little discussed by McGilchrist), and its relevance for reinterpreting the works of Blake, Nietzsche, and Gebser, and finally what it all potentially means in terms of the “transhuman” mutation or “integral consciousness”