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Right Brain: Handling a Crisis With Both the Left and Right Brain

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I am not one to go for the fire and brimstone thing, but this past week in American history has been something. 100 million gallons of oil in the ocean and counting, Obama goes to the Gulf while lightning strikes the ship with the containment cap, shutting it down for another week. Hayward squirms on the hot seat of a congressional hearing, while our politicians blow a lot of steam that goes nowhere. Its hard to wrap our mind's around the magnitude of it all. However, a most interesting moment came during the hearings when a shrimp fisherwoman barged in with oil stained hands and demanded criminal action.

Seeing her made me feel so much better in a strange sort of way. She had an oil streaked face, disheveled hair, and dripping hands. She was mad -- outraged, and she was not afraid to show it, even if it got her arrested. It was almost iconic, and reminded me of old tribe's women who would rub themselves with ashes to manage their grief, or Native women who would trill their anguish to the world. It fulfilled a more primal side of how we instinctively want to react in a crisis.

Many of us everyday folk sometimes feel like life is hemorrhaging out of control, and are struggling to manage all the emotions with logic and reason -- with less than satisfactory results. Maybe you are out of a job, hate your job, battling a divorce, an illness, or struggling with your kids. Often life hits us with something we did not expect, and we have absolutely no idea how to solve the problem, or what to do next. Maybe it is time to call in the right brain.

In a crisis, the left brain only knows how to come up with strategies and options. Sort of like the role President Obama is playing -- he is a left-brained master of keeping his cool and plodding a path of resolution. Yet his poll numbers have dropped -- why? Because we all need to acknowledge the emotional side of the crisis in order to move on. We also need the raging woman with wild hair and blackened fingers to satisfy the right brain of imagery, emotion and ritual.

I have several friends in their late 30's and 40's that are battling breast cancer. It is like an oil leak within the body -- going out of control, destroying everything in sight, and the methods to treat are still crude and scary. In a similar way, the first line of attack is left-brained: get the medical team lined up, assemble the tests, go before the tumor board and come up with a treatment plan. Yet, this also does not ultimately cut it, and we long for some sort of sublime experience to take us out of our bodies and into a more luminous place.

What to do in a crisis of the inner or outer world? Cry a lot, get your mind wrapped around it -- and fight. The boundaries of the inner and the outer world are more transparent than we know. I have found that teaching retreats and workshops which manage overwhelming challenges in life often requires accessing the right brain now and then. The left brain is in charge of being mad, blaming, getting facts, creating lists and making plans. This is a normal reaction, and the TV has been filled with endless examples of our left brain attempts to handle what is unimaginable.

However, the right brain operates on a different level. It wants to pray, meditate, draw, create something or experience a ritual to help gain perspective. A crisis is an assault to all of our senses -- whether it is an external environmental crisis like the Gulf, or an inner crisis like cancer. When the world does not make sense, sometimes we have to access other resources.

In my last post, I interviewed leadership consultant and author Margaret Wheatley, about the power and importance of Perseverance- and recommended a tonglen style meditation of breathing in the horrifying black tar of the gulf into our bodies, and breathing out light, clean and fresh water instead. Many struggled with this right brain approach to a crisis -- this is a waste of time! The left brain demands more concrete actions, like writing letters and yelling at the TV.

I think both strategies are necessary. When a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer, she put her executive trained brain into action and knew every detail of what her treatment would involve. However, what made the greatest impact on her was a special ritual her friends created for her; making a plaster cast of her chest before her double mastectomy that was painted with special words, prayers and images. She was sung to, held, and encircled in a way that harkened back another time.

It made a difference. She was filled with love and hope in a way no chemo treatment could even begin to touch. Rituals can be any sort of experience that is more symbolic than logical. It engages the heart over the head -- the right brain over the left. Rituals and interactive experiences with other people are often so powerful; it moves the head into a different mindset, fills us with grounded clarity and lifts our hearts.

Many have created special ceremonies and rituals for the Gulf spill. Altars have been cropping up in the sand, special healing circles and vigils. Check out Hands Across the Sands- an international ritual set up for June 26th for any group on any beach, to join at 11am and at noon to simply gather together, join hands and pray for an end to offshore drilling and resolution in the Gulf.

Is it going to put a cap on the oil? Not anymore than the time wasted clicking pictures on Capitol Hill of politicians battling for sound byte air time. American's need time to digest the magnitude of this tragedy, to be able to take it in, understand the impact and have a clear mind to make fundamental changes in the future. And, taking time to acknowledge the unseen world, to keen, to create, to come together -- remains fundamental to our very nature.

Huff Po readers: how do you engage your "right brain" in a crisis? What sort of rituals or experiences have you used that had a powerful impact on you? Love to hear your comments here.

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