Arts & Culture
Sufism
 

Between the left and right brain: the limits of reason

Close both eyes
to see with the other eye.
(Rumi)

 

As many of us know, the brain is divided into two hemispheres: the left and right. What many don’t know is the particular abilities of each of these hemispheres. Our left brain is logical, makes plans and remembers. Our right perceives the external world, is impressed upon by our senses and is where we feel emotion. Making this distinction has only been possible since modern medicine has allowed us to monitor electrical signals in the brain and through imaging the impact of stroke affected patients with brain scans. But the idea of ourselves as mental beings divided into parts is not new.

Plato, in his Republic, describes the human being, as a mental being, as a being divided into three parts: reason, spirit and appetite. The reason thinks, the appetite desires and the spirit drives us towards our goals. For Plato, justice is the correct arrangement of these characteristics, that the reason govern by wisdom the spirit to control the appetite. To put it another way, our desires are not innately natural and good, rather they need to be controlled by our wisdom. Left-brain wisdom allows us to perceive the true nature of things, their forms in the language of Plato. In contrast, hedonism asks us to forget left-brain concepts such as guilt and conscience and concentrate on the pleasure of living in the moment. I argue, perhaps controversially, that Sufi mystics combine aspects of these two ideas.

On the one hand Sufism is very much about living in the moment: taking pleasure in the witnessing of God's continuous sustenance of both the world around and the heart of the believer. This is achieved by remembrance of God (zikrullah). Like a child, we will forget the image of ourselves built up in our maturity and be enraptured by the moment. As Osman Topbaş explains:

Zikrullah is like embroidering the word Allah on our hearts with love and yearning. In this way, the rust of sins and heedlessness will be erased from the heart and it will taste the true pleasures of faith due to it having attained to complete peace and contentedness. (Civilisation of Virtue, vol. 1)

In this text, we see the tension between hedonism and platonism: the mystic at once experiences deep pleasure as well as inner peace and stillness. This tension is also apparent in Sufi poetry.

In this text, we see the tension between hedonism and platonism: the mystic at once experiences deep pleasure as well as inner peace and stillness. This tension is also apparent in Sufi poetry: dual themes of wine and the lover play on the idea of pleasure being attained through drinking knowledge of the beloved or the desperate need to fulfil a burning longing; other aspects of the poetry see the Sufi as almost timeless, waiting in unchanging stillness for knowledge to be revealed. Rumi expresses this tension beautifully in the piece about the lover at the door of the Beloved, answering with patience and apparent logic, but at the same time motivated by intense love and longing:

You said, ‘Who’s at the door?’
I said, ‘Your slave.’

You said, ‘What do you want?’
I said, ‘To see you and bow.’

‘How long will you wait?’
‘Until you call.’

‘How long will you cook?’
‘Till the Resurrection.’

We talked through the door. I claimed a great love and that I had given up what the world gives to be in that love.

You said, ‘Such claims require a witness.’
I said, ‘This longing, these tears.’

You said, 'Discredited witnesses.'
I said, 'Surely not!'

You said, 'Who did you come with?'
'The majestic imagination you gave me.'

'Why did you come?'
'The musk of your wine was in the air.'

'What is your intention?'
'Friendship.'

'What do you want from me?'
'Grace.'

Then you asked, 'Where have you been most comfortable?'
'In the palace.'

'What did you see there?'
'Amazing things.'

'Then why is it so desolate?'
'Because all that can be taken away in a second.'

'Who can do that?'
'This clear discernment.'

'Where can you live safely then?'
'In surrender.'

'What is this giving up?'
'A peace that saves us.'

'Is there no threat of disaster?'
'Only what comes in your street,
inside your love.'

'How do you walk there?'
'In perfection.'

Now silence. If I told more of this conversation,
those listening would leave themselves.

There would be no door,
no roof or window either!

(Rumi Poems, ed. Peter Washington, Everyman’s Library, New York, 2006)

The left-brain logic must also vanish when the thirst of love is so strong: will a thirsty person ask to be proven that a cup of water is really that or will she just drink?

After this intense dialogue, Rumi transcends left-brain language, withholding the rest of the conversation from us, and right-brain perception of space, defying all conceptions to define what is observed. Even the child-like wonder of the hand of the Creator in the world around us must be transcended; in the story of the Dervish in the Orchard, the seemingly sleeping mystic is told to wake up and observe the Divine marks around him. He responds: ‘the outward things are but marks of the marks’, whereas the real marks of the Divine are inner. The left-brain logic must also vanish when the thirst of love is so strong: will a thirsty person ask to be proven that a cup of water is really that or will she just drink?

Though our brain might be divided in two, our soul is one; and for those of us with healthy brains we have a chance to realise our path between the two extremes by finding our own unique experience of God. Somehow both parts must be used to accomplish this goal by finding balance. As the Prophet is said to have advised: "Live for this world as if you will live forever, and live for the next as if you will die tomorrow." Don't prioritise accumulation of wealth and pleasure but rather prioritise eternal happiness. With such a philosophy you won't stress about the future or about the lack of pleasure around you in the present but rather realise that your relationship with God provides both immediate sustenance and future happiness.

 

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