Wings of Soul
"And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: `My Lord! bestow on them thy Mercy ...'" (Q17:24, Yusuf Ali, tr.)
Some of the most exciting advances in scientific knowledge over past decades came out of research into the world's most powerful computer, the human brain. Now we know that the brain is bicameral in structure, and that one conscious, language-oriented half of the brain always dominates, or thinks it dominates, its opposite side, a spatial, iconic, inter-relational side. This understanding came out of a series of experiments where the anesthetic sodium pentothal was injected into the right carotid artery, putting out of commission the left side of the brain. Later it was injected into the left carotid, outing the right side. Patients thus disabled remained conscious with only one side of their brain functioning.
The researchers posed puzzles that require spatial reasoning in order to solve, first to subjects in their normal state, then with one side of their brain asleep. With their spatial hemisphere in good working order, the subject would succeed but after the fact the language side of the brain always took credit for solving it. Then, when the spatial brain was anesthetized and subjects inexplicably were no longer able to solve the puzzle, invariably they were surprised, embarrassed and puzzled. Why can I only move these blocks around? Why does this easy problem that I solved only a few minutes ago evade me now?
All this is perhaps too well known in the popular imagination today. We all know that we have so-called "right-brain" and "left-brain" competencies. This of course is a misnomer since in left-handers the language dominant side is on the right, not the left side. More correct and less confusing is to speak of a "language dominant brain" and a "spatial brain." Whether on left or right, the inarticulate spatial hemisphere is a highly efficient real-time computer specializing in imagery and the relations between objects. Its counterpart concentrates on coding what it calculates into language.
The research shows that if the two sides of the brain are put out of balance, the results are predictable. If there is a swing to the language hemisphere, our thoughts get lost in impotent theorizing and motor-mouthing. The speech brain cannot move percepts around, solve relational problems, innovate or even perceive anything beyond the outer surface of the reality around us. On the other hand, if the brain swings out of balance the other way and becomes overly spatial-oriented, it loses verbal creativity and cannot communicate what it perceives and calculates; more seriously, it loses contact with its purpose, its reasons for calculating.
Why is this? Does the brain have to divide its work up in this way? Why does consciousness, the "I," always seems to reside in the language brain? Why cannot the "me" part of the brain reside in the spatial realm?
The reason the brain divides its labor like this seems to be because of memory. Memory works by storing experience using the code of language. Whatever the brain cannot translate into words becomes isolated and lost because memory cannot access it. The "me" in the brain seems to wish to reside on the more permanent, lasting side of the equation. The self cannot directly appreciate what is not verbalized, nor can the world around the self profit from what is not translated into words. Calculations and comparisons depend totally upon the integrating, contextualizing capacity of words, as John the Evangelist said,
"In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
Substitute "self" for God and John's meaning remains unchanged. The very structure of the language brain pushes out images and attracts the self by communicating with it. In a mirroring process, the self can only communicate with other selves by coding experience into language.
Music seems to be a partial exception to this rule, and that seems to explain its universal appeal. Music has been found to affect all regions of the brain. A book I read recently called "This is Your Brain on Music" points out a very recent finding by the author that while everybody hears music using the spatial regions of the brain, those with musical training, especially musicians who read musical notation, tend also to be stimulated by musical sounds in their linguistic regions.
Other research shows that the brain is much more plastic than was previously thought. It adapts using built-in redundancy; when one brain region is destroyed, another part often takes over its functions. Another significant finding is the so-called "mirror neuron." Mirror neurons constitute an entirely unsuspected sub-system of the brain. They are designed to solve what is called in philosophy the "other minds" problem. Without mirror neurons, sympathy would be incomprehensible; they seem designed to do what the Golden Rule asks of us, to put ourselves into the shoes of others and act according to that understanding.
These findings jibe with two of the most often-used analogies for the soul, the soul as a pair of wings, and the soul as mirror. Let me close with two selections from two great minds that apply the "two wings" understanding of soul. The first is Plato, the second Jalalu'd-Din Rumi.
From Plato's Phaedrus
The wing is the corporeal element which is most akin to the divine, and which by nature tends to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downwards into the upper region, which is the habitation of the gods. The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness and the opposite of good, wastes and falls away. Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all; and there follows him the array of gods and demigods, marshaled in eleven bands; Hestia alone abides at home in the house of heaven; of the rest they who are reckoned among the princely twelve march in their appointed order.
... The rest of the souls are also longing after the upper world and they all follow, but not being strong enough they are carried round below the surface, plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers; and all of them after a fruitless toil, not having attained to the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon opinion. The reason why the souls exhibit this exceeding eagerness to behold the plain of truth is that pasturage is found there, which is suited to the highest part of the soul; and the wing on which the soul soars is nourished with this.
... But he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees any one having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god; then while he gazes on him there is a sort of reaction, and the shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration; for, as he receives the effluence of beauty through the eyes, the wing moistens and he warms. And as he warms, the parts out of which the wing grew, and which had been hitherto closed and rigid, and had prevented the wing from shooting forth, are melted, and as nourishment streams upon him, the lower end of the wings begins to swell and grow from the root upwards; and the growth extends under the whole soul -- for once the whole was winged.
... And this state, my dear imaginary youth to whom I am talking, is by men called love, and among the gods has a name at which you, in your simplicity, may be inclined to mock; there are two lines in the apocryphal writings of Homer in which the name occurs. One of them is rather outrageous, and not altogether metrical. They are as follows:
Mortals call him fluttering love,
But the immortals call him winged one,
Because the growing of wings is a necessity to him.
... After this their happiness depends upon their self-control; if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony -- masters of themselves and orderly -- enslaving the vicious and emancipating the virtuous elements of the soul; and when the end comes, they are light and winged for flight, having conquered in one of the three heavenly or truly Olympian victories; nor can human discipline or divine inspiration confer any greater blessing on man than this.
The Man Who Prayed Earnestly to be Fed Without Work.
from the Mathnavi of Rumi, Story VII, translated by E.H. Whinfield.
In the time of the prophet David there was a man who used to pray day and night, saying, "Thou hast created me weak and helpless; give me my daily bread without obliging me to work for it." The people derided him for making such a foolish petition, but he still persisted, and at last a cow ran into his house of its own accord, and he killed and ate it. This illustrates the saying of the Prophet that God loves earnest petitioners, because He regards the sincerity of the prayer more than the nature of the thing prayed for. All things praise God, but the praises of inanimate things are different from the praises of men, and those of a Sunni different from those of a Compulsionist (Jabri). Each says the other is in the way of error, but none but the truly spiritual man knows the truth.
Knowledge or conviction, opposed to opinion.
Little is known by any one but the spiritual man,
Who has in his heart a touchstone of vital truth.
The others, hovering between two opinions,
Fly towards their nest on a single wing.
Knowledge has two wings, opinion only one wing;
Opinion is weak and lopsided in its flight.
The bird having but one wing quickly drops down,
And again flies on two steps or more.
This bird of opinion goes on rising and falling
On one wing, in hope to reach his nest.
When he escapes from opinion and knowledge is seen,
This bird gains two wings and spreads both of them.
Afterwards he "goes upright on a straight path,
Not groveling on his face or creeping."
He flies up on two wings even as the angel Gabriel,
Free of opinion, of duplicity, and of vain talk.