Finding Peace of Mind As We Age
I hope to cultivate greater peace of mind as I live out the last few years of my life. Many aspects of our lives spin out of control, but we should, at least, be capable of managing the workings of our minds. I have recently discovered two important concepts that, when merged, provide a mind management strategy for achieving greater clarity and equanimity.
The first concept was initially proposed by the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, and is captured by his term “Gelassenheit,” which is often translated as “releasement.” The root word is lassen, which means to let something happen, to allow, or to leave something be. Eckhart used the word to describe his mystical approach to Catholic worship, which involved letting go of intellectual and scholarly approaches to finding God. and replace them with direct experience of the divine. He extricated himself from religious doctrine and adoration of written scriptures and opened himself to intuitive experience of the divine. Gelassenheit, more generally, describes the dynamic interplay between a polarity of opposites—a letting go of one thing automatically opens the door to the embrace of something else.
The second strategy is the hemisphere hypothesis, a broad and robust area of inquiry by the scholar and philosopher Iain McGilchrist.* The key point for my purposes is that the two hemispheres of our brain are semi-independent and think in very different ways. When the two hemispheres collaborate under the guidance of the right hemisphere (RH), which sees the big picture of direct experience, our minds operate well. Unfortunately, the left hemisphere (LH), which creates a virtual reality representation of reality, has come to dominate modern civilization. Consequently, we become confused and conflicted because our view of reality is distorted and detached from real experience.
Combining the gelassenheit process with the guidance of the hemisphere hypothesis provides us with a reasonable game plan for cultivating greater peace of mind. I’ll call it the “hemispheric gelassenheit” strategy. In broad terms, the strategy is to release our mind from the virtual reality distortions of the LH, as we open our minds to direct experience of real life as mediated by the RH. How might we put the hemispheric gelassenheit into action?
Fortunately, there are a few simple, straight forward activities that rebalance hemispheric influence in favor of the RH. Aerobic exercise does the trick. When you hike, jog, swim, bike, or engage in any kind of continuous exertion, your LH shuts down so your RH can focus on the body’s interaction with the environment. Experiencing the awe of the natural world also brings RH sensibilities to center stage. Playfulness and creativity, listening to music, dancing all quiet the LH and engage the RH.
Alan Watts, who masterfully brought Eastern wisdom to Western audiences, quipped that, “We need to lose our minds to come to our senses.” We don’t, of course, need to lose our entire mind. The trick to finding peace of mind, or enlightenment, is to quiet the LH chatter and let the RH pay full attention to direct sensual engagement with real experience. Stop living inside our rational brains and return to direct experience of life.
There are also structured disciplines that are designed to practice the hemispheric gelassenheit. Regular meditation practice, for example, trains the mind to let go of LH chatter and to ground ourselves in the direct experience of breathing, or feeling our body, which engages the RH.
Zen koans are training techniques designed to stimulate insight by being inscrutable. To a question such as “What is the meaning of life?” a Zen master might respond with the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping? or the statement “Wash your rice bowl.” The LH can’t make sense of these koans using logic and literalism and eventually the RH, which is more comfortable with ambiguity, takes over. The RH may then recognize that thinking about the meaning of life is a fruitless endeavor. The meaning of life is found in living life. You are already doing it. This is it!
There also appear to be more dramatic and rapid-fire methods of achieving the hemispheric gelassenheit. I believe, for example, that people who experience a so-called mystical experience are, in fact, suddenly thrust into a new state-of-consiousness, one nearly devoid of LH influence.
Neuroantomist Jill Bolte Taylor, for example, suffered a LH stroke and for eight years lived exclusively through her RH. She says, “my consciousness shifted into a perception that I was at one with the universe. Since that time, I have come to understand how it is that we are capable of having a ‘mystical’ or ‘metaphysical’ experience—relative to our brain anatomy.”
People who have spontaneous mystical experiences consistently report feeling a dissolution of self and a happy merging with some greater and grander conception of existence.
Modern research into psychedelics is now making a mystical experience available to anyone who manages to arrange a guided trip on psilocybin or other psychedelic drugs. Serious researchers are reporting numerous medical and emotional benefits that regularly result from the use of psilocybin. These include the dissolution of self, and a profound sense of meaning and purpose brought about by unity with something larger than ourselves. This sounds like a hemispheric gelassenheit to me. The mystical experience of a psilocybin trip leaves people with a deep sense of calm, with peace of mind.
I am convinced that the hemispheric gelassenheit strategy can help individuals find greater peace of mind. And further, I believe the strategy could help us move society toward greater sanity and peace. The strategy would involve freeing ourselves from destructive LH approaches to political, economic, and social concerns, and replacing them with kinder, more compassionate RH approaches. But this is a topic for another time.
*The hemisphere hypothesis and its myriad implications is expounded by Iain McGilchrist in his two majestic books: The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009), and The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (2021). You can learn more about McGilchrist at his website: https://channelmcgilchrist.com/.
Michael C. Patterson is an author, teacher and consultant who specializes in promoting successful longevity, living long, and living well. He explores his ideas about the hemispheric gelassenheit on the MIND OVER MUDDLE series of the MINDRAMP Podcasts. Learn more about Patterson’s work with MINDRAMP at www.mindramp.org.