I took this view with my new Panasonic Lumix camera (a Christmas present) whilst enjoying a wonderful long-weekend at Lake Maggiore in Italy recently. I love this camera: it is very easy to use, is great for taking landscapes and the design resembles the old brownie cameras. It also has an old fashioned view finder: the eye sensor automatically detects when you want to use the view finder instead of the LED screen which is especially useful in bright sunlight. Putting my eye to the camera really made me think about perspective and focus.
I was reminded how just over a year ago, following my diagnosis, my focus had become so inward looking that it clouded my view of the world around me. I existed in an in-between space: physically present but mentally absent. I was at all times consumed by my diagnosis, hyper-alert to my symptoms, awash with anger and despair. I had allowed gastroparesis to box me in: I had built a wall of isolation around me. This disconcerting sensation manifested itself most acutely when I was with a group of close friends celebrating a birthday: I sat there listening to their conversation and participating but feeling entirely disconnected from them and my surroundings. I felt as if I could see them but they couldn’t see me: I was screaming inside but no-one could hear.
The following week I booked my first appointment with my CBT therapist: the first, and probably most important, step I made in managing my recovery. CBT is not about positive thinking (positive thinking is not sufficient nor sustainable when your world is rocked by crisis); CBT is about taking small, practical steps that help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave through retraining your brain and its entrenched thought patterns.
Over the last year, I have read extensively around the mind-body connection and have become fascinated by the complexity of the brain particularly its right and left hemispheres and how they each attend to the world and how in that attending our world is changed. I recently signed up to the online Neuroscience training summit which explored this in detail. One of its contributors, Dr. Bonnie Badenoch, wrote an article for the summit: ‘How understanding our embodied brains can support lives of hope & resilience’ and a couple of paragraphs jumped out for me:
“In a very small and incomplete nutshell, when we attend from the right, we experience the world of relationships as it is emerging in this moment. We attend to the space between with open receptivity and far fewer judgements. This is the perspective that allows us to be truly present with one another in ways that are profoundly supportive of the health of both people and society as a whole.[…] The left hemisphere’s way of attending is entirely different. It is less engaged with current experience and more intent on taking what has already been learned, making it static, taking it apart, and reassembling it into systems. It tends toward judgements and has no felt sense of being in relationships with others.
We can easily sample these two ways of experiencing by attending to our bodies from these different perspectives. Our left brain regards the body as an object to be run around the block and fed certain foods to look or feel a certain way. In those moments, it is as though we are standing back and viewing our bodies as separate entities, judging them according to accepted criteria, and seeking to control and improve them. The right brain engages in a different kind of relationship with the body, listening to its language which is sensation – as it emerges in this moment’.
Interestingly, data from a number of research studies shows that 75% of us are living in a left-centric way. A naturally creative person, my score shows that I’m 68% right-centric. Yet from the moment I was diagnosed, I engaged with my unfolding health crisis through my left hemisphere. Why? Thinking about the years that precipitated my illness, I can see how I overdeveloped my left hemisphere through completing my DPhil research whilst my analytical job needed me to problem-solve multiple times a day. So my instinct when faced with something life-changing was to analyse and problem-solve. Who of us naturally approach illness creatively? Yet it was only when I looked at my life in the round and purposefully made space for the creative (like meditation, cooking, walking, music) that things started to get better.
But the left hemisphere is not the bad guy: Dr. Badenoch and many participants at the summit demonstrated how neuroscience research shows that both hemispheres are crucial to our well-being: ‘When the right provides the vision and the left creates the systems to manifest that vision, we are on solid ground for long-term sustainable living’. And the best bit: the brain is so flexible that the potential to shift toward whole-brain living is always there. So if you find yourself over-thinking a problem, replaying a difficult scenario, judging yourself or someone else: remember to give your right hemisphere a nudge!