Beyond Theory – Experience and Attention
Have you had an unusual experience while being conscious of LH and RH attention modes? Mine doesn’t fit... View more
Have you had an unusual experience while being conscious of LH and RH attention modes? Mine doesn’t fit into any existing groups, so I thought I’d make a new one for interesting experiences.
I had a recent close encounter with a Grizzly Bear, and while I’ve told the story in person at least a dozen times, I’ve never spoken of the divided brain aspect I relate here. I tell this version on Channel McGilchrist because only someone familiar with Iain’s work could know what I am talking about.
Do you have a story involving direct experience of the attention modes?
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Encounter in the Wild from an LH/RH Perspective
Encounter in the Wild from an LH/RH Perspective
I had a recent close encounter with a Grizzly Bear. With so many erudite discussions of Dr. McGilchrist’s work taking place, I thought I would take a different tack and explore a more primal use of our divided brains: dangerous encounters in the wild, once far more common than today. As the event unfolded, I attended in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before. At times I consciously used the “non-duality of duality and non-duality” to help navigate the experience, which lasted a few hours from first sighting to becoming close enough that the bear and I were communicating almost entirely with our bodies, silently and in sync, each of us attending respectfully to our right hemispheres and avoiding direct eye contact.
This re-presentation leans on Iain’s description of our consciousness as a continually shifting “between-ness” of LH and RH attention modes. (Between-ness in relationship, by the way, I believe was expressed in ancient times with a reverence for the number “3”, however I digress.) By necessity the re-creation is simplified, for example by referencing momentary impressions as “LH” or “RH”, when as above it’s always a singular between-ness. Another simplification is using words for impressions of the RH, which are crude translations at best, or using words at all for what was almost entirely a wordless experience. There are likely more distortions, however beyond some poetic license with word selection and focusing on key moments, it’s as faithful to the original experience as I can possibly be.
I’ll take it for granted that you are already convinced of the veracity and importance of what Iain has uncovered. Iain’s argument is a net, and if it’s possible to show fraying at a few of the nodes, it doesn’t change the fact that there is still a working net. This is a re-presentation of an experience which I consciously attended to in this specific way, as an enhanced tool of survival. I deliberately used my knowledge of our singular consciousness, able to make use of 2 different kinds of attention, so I could make the best use of each of them, individually and together.
In the last week of August 2022 I was on 3-day solo hike in the Canadian Rockies, an hour’s drive from Banff. Mid-afternoon on the first day, a third of the way up a steep mountain with just under a mile of elevation gain, I spotted a Grizzly and cub a hundred yards below, the way I’d just come up. They were digging, and then momma had something in her mouth and the cub was running her in circles trying to take it from her. They were playing! After the initial stab of fear it was a bit comforting to see they were happy bears and not hungry bears, although any thoughts I had about turning around and going back down were immediately vanquished.
Up until then, my RH was engaged with the mountain views, the silence and the fresh air, along with my increasingly aching legs and shoulders. My LH was engaged with picking each step since I was coming up a little-known alternate route, steeper, grassier, and pathless. At 2/3 elevation, the stony and treed path of the west face meets the south face I was on, and a person (or a bear!) can traverse from one side of the mountain to the other. I didn’t know it yet, but this milestone point is where we would have our encounter a few hours hence.
First spotting occurred while resting and looking down the way I came:
RH swinging over to LH: That’s interesting. Oh! Those are bears! Oh shit, they’re grizzlies, a momma and big cub! LH: situation analysis?
LH: They’re busy in a berry patch, far enough away down a steep slope I’m in no immediate danger. There’s an updraft and they can’t smell me or the sandwiches. Good call me paying extra for the good bear spray, which I can get to within seconds if needed. It’s got a 30 foot range and the air is pretty still. The spray has 7 seconds in total. I go 3 seconds with the first shot and assess, then there is a second shot of 3 seconds and a final burst up close if needed. Remember to save some for the third shot in case the first two don’t deter. I want to maintain or increase our distance. I don’t know how fast they could bound up the slope if they chose to. Rest is over, time to climb faster than we have been.
RH: Our legs are shot. They’ve been shot for hours and every step is torture. How are we going to go faster?
LH: This is survival now. Leave it to me. I don’t feel this body or the passage of time and I’ll drag it up myself if I have to.
It might sound contrived, but I did think to use my knowledge of LH/RH differences to help me here. I didn’t think it out in words like above, but I did consciously lean on the LH to keep climbing in spite of straining muscles, which I’m certain gave me a boost. (A reductionist might propose it was adrenaline that gave me the boost, to which I would counter that the adrenaline release was regulated by my emotional response, which was, “concerned”.) I have little memory of the next few hours, except for frequently looking over my shoulder and one time I stopped to rest, halfway to the milestone point.
I sat for around 5 minutes and didn’t see the bears. Then I spotted them.
RH: Oh! They’re the same distance away! They’re in a different berry patch. They’re coming up behind us, matching our pace! Situation assessment?
LH: Keep going. Same pace. I’m close enough now I know I can make it. They’re still busy feeding and not paying attention to me. Soon I’ll be above their berry patches and maybe they’ll turn around and go back down.
I got to the south/west transverse point to take a major rest and change into warmer clothes, for the final 1/3 push to the top. I had doubled the distance between me and the bears and had eyes on them.
RH: 200 yards. Situation assessment?
LH: Two options: Stay here and hope they turn around, or climb up the scree where they’ll never go. If I stay here and they do come up, they’ll come this way because that’s the only way to get to anywhere useful for them. However they’re farther away now and they might not. Sun will be going down soon.
RH: Legs are shot. Need to rest. Need warmer clothes on soon. Hey! The bears have moved up to the next berry patch. Now they’re the same distance as before. There’s another small berry patch halfway between them and us, if they do keep coming up.
LH: OK, since I’m staying here I’ll determine the most defensible spot. As it happens, it’s the high ground right above us, 25 feet up a 60 degree slope of small rocks. There’s a knee high rock to sit on and assist with defence if needed. There’s only one way up, from directly below. This spot won’t stop a grizzly but it will slow down a charge and better my chances at getting good shots off. In case of attack I’d have to hold this ground as there’s not much further up to go and no more big rocks to get behind.
RH: Body says drink water, change clothes and rest up.
I had my shoes off, one pant leg on, and the contents of my backpack strewn around when I noticed the bears were on the move again. I finished getting my pants on as they got to the last berry patch. They didn’t stop.
RH: Situation! This is real. The bears are coming up and will cross our path. 50 yards and closing steady.
LH: I need to get the shoes on. Otherwise mobility will be limited, painful and very uncertain. I have time. I’ll yell at them to make sure they know I’m here. I won’t be able to hide, but at least I can make sure it’s not a surprise encounter.
RH: They heard us, although they don’t seem terribly impressed or frightened. They are not taking our suggestion to turn around and go back down.
LH: Alright, I’ve got the high ground, a defensive rock, and am ready with the spray. Once I get the shoes on, then it’s just waiting to see what happens. Back over to [not I].
RH: Roger. Max perceptual aperture.
I got one shoe on and tied, and then I only had time to slip on the right shoe untied.
LH: Good enough. Won’t matter about the shoelace.
RH: 20 yards. We are ‘in the zone’, perfectly calm, perfectly alert.
LH: I’m standing up. They already know I’m here, so best to look as big as possible. The high ground will help with that perception. Being in the zone is all kinds of excellent – if I have to take a shot I won’t hesitate or miss.
RH: 10 yards. Momma is a zen master. She’s walking nonchalantly, not looking at us directly. I can feel her without even trying. She’s relaxed, power harnessed by grace. We are in communion with a common spirit. Our body and her body are in direct communication, and I‘ve never been so sure of anything.
LH: That’s good. Standing by.
RH: 5 yards. Our body is very aware that she has us on her radar, but she’s still not making eye contact and she’s still not feeling aggressive. She’s showing us the same respect we’re showing her. The cub is not in sight any more, it’s just momma and us.
LH: Good that she’s relaxed. She’s attending with her RH. I’ll continue to do same, keeping her in close peripheral vision but avoiding direct eye contact. I want her to know I’m watching closely and without fear, but have no intention to attack unprovoked.
RH: 0 yards. She’s right below. Still not looking at us. Oh! She let out a loud snort, almost of surprise.
LH: She’s directly downwind now. Hadn’t thought about that. She can smell me, and she can smell the food. What did she mean with the snort?
RH: All kinds of things, hard to reduce to words. It was a snort of surprise – perhaps that we smell so funky and suddenly there’s delicious food only a few steps away. It was also a greeting of sorts, acknowledging our presence. It was an inquisitive sound too, asking who we are. She’s still in open RH mode. Still keeping her head down and still not making eye contact.
LH: I don’t want to make a sound because that will telegraph I am far less powerful. I don’t want to make a move because that could trigger an unexpected response. I’ll remain still. A few more seconds and she’ll be on her way down the other side of the mountain.
RH: 1 yard past. Shit. She slowed her pace to half and is slowly turning her head toward us. I can feel her activating her LH, zooming to about 15% and climbing. She did not like our non-response, and now she’s considering whether she wants to continue zooming in. I feel it percolating in her like a question. Her movement was very subtle, very graceful, very measured. She’s challenging us about the food, looking just to the left of us, exactly where the food is. Are we bluffing? Will we defend our food? Is there anything stopping her from walking right up and taking it? Somehow I feel we are both attending to the food now as much as each other. Our body is telling her body that the food is mine.
LH: Yes, she’s demanding a response. I’ll match the escalation. In a movement intended to be equally subtle, graceful and measured, I’ll sweep out my right foot half a step, putting the lower body in fighting stance. This puts me right behind the rock in the optimal defence position. Zooming in similarly but still not making eye contact. Bear spray at the ready but not raised or pointed at her – that’ll be the next escalation if she keeps turning her head and/or stops moving. The next split second might decide how this encounter is going to go.
RH: 2 yards. She liked the move. We earned her respect. She’s turning her head away and resuming her pace. She let out a loud sniff, not at all like the snort. I interpret it as a bunch of things including: I feel you. It’s rude not to acknowledge a greeting. OK then, I was just checking about the food. I’m not going to zoom in or escalate. Resuming RH attention. Also: Hurry along [my cub], you’re falling behind. This creature isn’t going to hurt you, nothing to be frightened of.
LH: The cub. I still haven’t seen it. This isn’t over until it passes too.
RH: 5 yards. A second sniff, like the first. Momma wants the cub to step it up. She’s gone around the corner and is no longer in sight. She doesn’t intend to come back.
LH: That will change if the cub starts something.
RH: There’s the cub. So skittish. It’s giving us a wide berth. It just saw its mother give us a pass and it wants nothing to do with us. More frightened than curious, not even coming in close for a sniff, the way momma did.
LH: It’s over. I’ll tie the other shoe and pack the bag. I’ll get up that scree before it gets dark, in case momma decides to come back later. This was a decent tactical spot for a brief encounter, but it’s steep, lacks withdrawal options, and is no place to camp.
RH: Momma and cub are heading down a ridge. Moving fast. 75 yards already.
LH: That doesn’t mean they won’t be back. I can’t stay here. I want to get a ¼ mile of scree below me before it gets dark.
And that was that. Had I never heard of Dr. McGilchrist, I expect the encounter would have gone much the same. However, it was fascinating to be able to attend in this way. Early on, I was able to tell my left hemisphere to take over and haul my aching legs up the mountain, detached from my body’s protests and the passage of time. Later, during the 1-2 seconds when the encounter might have escalated, I was intuitively and bodily aware that momma bear was shifting from RH mode to LH mode. When she started to zoom in on the smell of my food and consider it might be there for the taking, I understood my aim was to halt the zooming in process, because that’s when things get unpredictable.
From the moment I first saw the bears I was aware of my 2 modes of attention sync’ing up and working together, to maximize my odds of avoiding a conflict. I was able to lean on the LH for all its good for. I believe that understanding the workings of both mine and the bear’s consciousness deepened my sense of agency, putting me more solidly “in the zone”, as it were, where my reactions to whatever happened would be as good as I could possibly make them.
The next day I made the summit. I am not conditioned for mountain hiking, so at times I’d been having second thoughts. Looking back though, from the moment I finished, I remember my entire 3 days on the mountain in a magical, mystical haze. I gather that at least some of my memory of this primeval experience is bound in its RH aspect, giving it that sense of the sacred.