The Wonder and the Terror

I’ve told you that the true art of a warrior is to balance terror and wonder. Power can be met only with power. The crux of sorcery is the internal dialogue; that is the key to everything. When a warrior learns to stop it, everything becomes possible; the most farfetched schemes become attainable. We are a feeling and what we call our body is a cluster of luminous fibers that have awareness. As long as you think that you are a solid body you cannot conceive what I am talking about. — don Juan to Carlos Castaneda

I trust that, having watched Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk, this passage from Castaneda’s Tales of Power will make perfect sense. It reflects her own experience and, moreover, was also the understanding of William Blake. The body was not a solid for Blake either, but described as a “cloud”. “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”. This is a sensate age, in other words, and the perception of the body as a solid is the intent of the sensate consciousness, which is associated with the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain. And for similar reasons, Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and his Emissary prefers to speak of “the metaphor of the divided brain” [my emphasis] in order to avoid any kind of suggestion that consciousness is only an epiphenomenon of brain functioning, or that the brain “secretes” consciousness in some mysterious manner.

Bolte-Taylor’s experience, though, is a marvelous corroboration of much that McGilchrist has written about the distinct modes of perception and modes of being associated with the brain hemispheres. But what I want to do in this post is explore how McGichrist’s metaphor of the divided brain illuminates this particular passage from Castaneda’s Tales of Power.

I watch Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk over and over again. I never tire of it. With each viewing I discover something new, some new aspect to her experience, not just because of what it affirms of McGilchrist’s divided brain research, but also because of what it corroborates in the experience of Castaneda and in the teachings of don Juan. After I concluded reading McGilchrist’s book on neurodynamics, I also concluded that the secret to understanding Castaneda lies in the premise that his teacher, don Juan, inducted Castaneda fully into the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere of the brain by inhibiting the dominating functions of the left hemisphere, which don Juan called “unfolding the wings of perception”. Moreover, a consideration of McGilchrist’s metaphor of neurodynamics (I guess he prefers the term “metaphor” to “model”) also suggests that what don Juan called “the nagual” and what he called “the tonal” are equally the very different “modes of attention” or “modes of being” that McGilchrist associates with the right-hemisphere and left-hemisphere of the divided brain.

This differentiation between the nagual and the tonal is what informs the “art of the warrior” as maintaining a balance between the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive. The “wonder” is what we call “awe”, and many moons ago I wrote a piece reflecting on the peculiar entanglement of the awful with the awesome, another instance of the logical paradox of “same but different” — the mystery of their mutual presence or coincidentia oppositorum. The wonder and the terror are these two sides of awe, as being the awesome and the awful, and these correspond to the moods of the nagual and the tonal.

And here I want to reiterate, in the mode of attention called “the nagual“, it is possible for a man or woman to become a crow (Castaneda) or a whale (Bolte-Taylor) or a fish (me), or a “bear-walker”. The shaman’s way is the way of the nagual, the mode of being and perception of the right-hemisphere of the brain, and the only issue is whether the tonal or “the enlightened ego consciousness” as Seth also calls it, and which don Juan calls “the description of the world” associated with the internal monologue and therefore with the functions of the left-hemisphere of the brain, is competent to actually describe or represent the experience and the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere, which was Castaneda’s struggle as recounted through his many books.

Now, the wonder and the terror, the awesome and the awful, are also the two moods associated with the activity of the brain hemispheres and therefore as the moods of the nagual and the mood of the tonal respectively, and therefore, as don Juan puts it, the “art of the warrior” is to balance terror and wonder. This is the fundamental life situation, is it not? To be, to exist, means to be shot through with both terror and wonder, and this is reflected also in the peculiar fact that Latin ex-stare (existence or “to  stand out”) is precisely cognate with Greek ek-stase (“ecstacy” or “to stand out”). To be is to be in a state of both terror and wonder. This is the issue of any kind of sentience whatsoever, although in the human it becomes self-conscious wonder and terror, not just visceral. This is the ambiguous image of The Great Mother as both benign mother and as the terrible mother (Kali the Devourer) that Erich Neumann explored in his book The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. This is reflected in the mutual identity of the Gorgon and of Athena (Gebser) or the identity of Dionysus with Hades (Heraclitus). Terror and wonder, or the awful and the awesome, are the original and root coincidentia oppositorum, or even what Blake calls “the marriage of heaven and hell”.

This coincidentia oppositorum provides a clue to the interpretation of almost everything about the human world (the world of the tonal, as it were) in the primal experience of terror or the awful. The hyperactivity of the left hemisphere, or of the tonal, with its chief weapon, analysis, is a response to the terrors of existence. The “nothing but…” attitude is mankind’s shield against the fear and terror of existence. And since the perception of the right-hemisphere perceives all, in both its wonderous and terrific aspects, the perceptions of the right-hemisphere had to be suppressed in order to suppress the terror. But in so doing it also lost the sense of awe or wonder, because wonder and terror are mutually entangled.

And for this reason, the “first enemy of the man of knowledge”, as don Juan put it, is fear — the primal, visceral terror of being. Relaxing the grip of the tonal on awareness, the very first act of self-overcoming, is the mastery of fear. The flip side of Nietzsche’s “will to power” is primal terror.

If the art of the warrior is to balance wonder and terror, and that these have something to do with the different modes of being and perception of the brain hemispheres, it also makes sense that, as Buddhism puts it, “nirvana and samsara are the same, and yet not the same”. Nirvana and samsara correspond to the moods of the nagual or the tonal, and to the wonder and the terror. The enigma that nirvana and samsara are not the same… until they are is that same coincidentia oppositorum.

McGilchrist is fond of quoting Blake’s “without contraries, there is no progression”. This does in fact reflect the oft misunderstood saying of Heraclitus that “war is the father of all things”. This, perhaps, may account for why the brain became divided in the first place, like the poles of a battery. Wonder and terror are, perhaps, the very first experience of this polarity of things, the very foundation for all subsequent human activity.

Nirvana and samsara, wonder and terror, the nagual and the tonal, the first attention of the right-hemisphere of the brain and the second attention of the left-hemisphere, and the balance. The balance is the sacred journey — the “path with heart”, the Buddhist’s “Middle Way”, the trials of Odysseus, the North American native’s “Good Red Road”, the Islamic “Sharia”, the Christian’s “crusade” or “way of the cross”. They actually all have the same meaning. A sharia was the path that led through the desert to the oasis or well. The real spiritual meaning of these things has largely been forgotten or, as McGilchrist might say, the symbolic form of the perception of the right-hemisphere has been usurped by the more literalist massaging of the symbol by the left-hemisphere. The correct path is the pathway between them and consequently, between the wonder and the terror. This is called “the Middle Way” or “path with heart”.

And whether it is the Muslim following along his Sharia, or the Christian following his or her way of the cross, or the Buddhist travelling the Middle Way, or Odysseus on his long voyage, or Nietzsche’s path “beyond good and evil”, or the aboriginal walking the Good Red Road — the path is the same everywhere; the passage between wonder and terror, and concomitantly therefore between the first attention and the second attention, and all those things that are associated with those different moods and perceptions. The path is the paradox. The path is the coincidence of opposites. This is the integral consciousness.


5 responses to “The Wonder and the Terror”

  1. Steve Lavendusky says :

    Blake distinguishes between ‘Contraries’ and ‘Negations’. Negations affirm one quality and simultaneously deny the other. Good and evil, beautiful and ugly, are Negations. Contraries, on the other hand, are contrasting but complementary qualities. For example, elegant and grotesque are contraries. Satan is not a Contrary but a Negation, who merely denies.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes. The contraries are what Gebser calls “polarities” rather than oppositions. In fact, Nietzsche’s “higher wisdom” as expressed in the term “beyond good and evil” is the recognition also that good and evil are not oppositions, but polarities. This is what makes Nietzsche “amoral”, but not “immoral”, but some are very confused on this matter — the “vulgar Nietzscheans” as they’re called. In fact, to perceive even these things as polarities rather than oppositions signals a shift to the mode of attention/mode of being of the right-hemisphere of the brain.

      “Energy”, says Blake, “is Eternal Delight”, and the flux of energy requires polarities, not oppositions. Gebser uses the alpha prefix a- in many ways (arational, amoral, aperspectival, ahistorical, etc) to emphasise the contrariness, but not in the form of opposition. The distinction is quite nuanced and subtle, but it’s an important one for overcoming dualism.

      There’s lots of this in Nietzsche and in Rumi, too. And, of course, Blake.

      • Scott Preston says :

        By the way, don Juan’s maxim that “the art of the warrior is to balance the terror and the wonder” is very much in keeping with Rumi and Nietzsche, too. In fact Nietzsche actually plagiarised Rumi for his Zarathustra in a couple of places to make this very point. His “overman” is the one who can balance the terror and the wonder. The chapter in Zarathustra called “The Vision and the Enigma” is cribbed almost verbatim from Rumi’s poem “Jesus on a Lean Donkey”. You can find both parables on line to compare them.

  2. Dwig says :

    A few reactions:

    Having just pointed to Fraser’s work in my last comment, I should add here that Fraser’s concept of “conflict” in his last book is very much in line with Don Juan’s “balance between …”

    I realized a while back that fear can be a motivator or a paralyzer: the fear that calls forth the “fight or flight” response, or the fascinated terror of the monkey watching the snake advance along the branch…

    Re the Great Mother: another thing that occurred to me recently, was that I’m falling in love with Gaia, conceived very much as Lovelock (hmmm….) has described her. I also realized that I don’t expect anything from her in return, other than to be and become what she has been/is/will be over her multi-billion year lifetime. I’m content to be a tiny thread in the tapestry of that lifetime.

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