BRAIN RESEARCH may seem like a peculiar place to begin an issue devoted to art and ceremony, but be patient, I think you will soon see the relevance. The brain research I am referring to is the discovery, explored in detail during the past two decades or so, that the different parts of the brain – especially the right and left hemispheres – perceive and "think" in different ways. As you may well know, the right side tends to be nonverbal, concrete, nontemporal, intuitive, and synthetic, while the left side emphasizes language, logic, analysis and linear thinking. In addition to this left/right division of labor, there is also an up/down division between the reptilian brain stem, the mammalian middle brain, and the distinctly human neo-cortex. Each of these parts of the brain has its own modes of expression, and can function independently of the other parts. They can all work together, but they can also oppose and jam each other.
Optimal personal mental health requires that all parts of the brain be well developed, that each is able to express itself, and that they have a cooperative relationship. Unfortunately, most of the institutions of our society – from schools to businesses to government – place heavy value on the characteristics of the left neo-cortex. The result is that most of us are not only unbalanced, the different parts of our brain are actually at war with each other. Multiplied throughout the society, this effect leads to the all too familiar conditions of alienation and violence as we project out and act out our internal conflicts.
If we are to build a healthy sustainable culture without alienation and violence, we are going to have to re-balance our brains. To do this, we need to become fluent in the "languages" of our now underdeveloped and suppressed brain parts. These languages express through images, sounds, color, touch and movement. In other words, the non-verbal arts are the languages of the non-verbal parts of the brain. Even the verbal arts often weave in important non-verbal aspects.
Because the arts can speak to us on many levels, at their best they help us to truly perceive what we had only noticed, to experience what we thought we knew, to integrate and synthesize, and to focus and evoke the full energy of our enthusiasm and commitment. They can speak to and mobilize the whole of our being.
But what about ceremony and ritual? For most people in our society, these words evoke rather dreary associations, such as "mechanical," "rigid," "stuffy," or "dead." We have experienced too many ceremonies that are an external imposition from a past we no longer understand or find relevant.
Yet we should not judge the species by its fossils. If we can reapproach "ceremony and ritual" with fresh eyes, we discover something of remarkable vitality. Ceremony that is alive might well be described as a particular blending of art forms – aimed at experience rather than a product and at the participants rather than an audience. When it is meaningful, it is the art form most capable of nourishing our whole being.
While this kind of experience is important for us as individuals, it is doubly important for building and sustaining culture. Culture, in the broad anthropological sense of that word, is mostly made up of shared behavior patterns and shared expectations, much of which is neither verbal nor conscious. Quite simply, culture grows out of shared experience, but some experiences are more impactful than others. When they truly speak to us, art and ceremony are the most effective culture building tools that humans have yet devised.
Your right brain understands all this perfectly well, but your left brain may still doubt whether, in spite of these claims, art and ceremony are worth the time and effort. After all, the left brain has more important things to do, such as change the social system, end war, feed the hungry, etc. As regular readers of IN CONTEXT will know, I certainly have no quarrel with these goals, but I do question the implicit left brain assumption that it can accomplish these things all on its own. Let me put it bluntly to the left brain. Have you ever wondered why people nod agreeably to all those wonderful ideas you articulate in the search for a better world, but then don’t follow through with any action? Meaningful action only comes from enthusiasm and commitment, and these only come from the integrated mobilization of our whole being. If you are not willing to acknowledge, to make peace with, in fact to celebrate, the other parts of your being, your chances of being effective are slim indeed.
This doesn’t mean that what needs our time and attention are those activities in our society that currently carry the labels of "Art" or "Ceremony." Rather, we need art and ceremony that recognize that broad based involvement is more important than professional polish, and that authenticity is more important than novelty.
The material of this issue comes from people who have sensed this need and are working to give it form and substance. Yet we are only beginning to discover for ourselves the meaning and role of art and ceremony in sustainable culture. It is vitally important work, and something in which we can all participate.