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The Asymmetric Self

There’s a question that comes up often in the Mindsprings meditation sessions: “When I am sitting or lying doing these body-based practices, I often notice that one side of my body is completely off-line or dull compared to the other one. Is this normal?” Judging by the number of times the asymmetric self arises, I would say YES.

It’s quite rare for people to experience their body-from-within in a completely symmetrical way.

Asymmetries in our self-awareness are not only extremely common, but I would say they are in the natural order of things. You can check your asymmetric self. Right now. Close your eyes. Unhook from your mind and drop down into your chest. Does your awareness go immediately to the right, the left, out in front, or behind?

It’s quite rare for people to experience their body-from-within in a completely symmetrical way. I don’t know anyone whose awareness rests plumb-central in their chest all the time. And when I was first learning this kind of body-aware meditation, no one ever drew attention to this asymmetry, so I pushed it to one side. But working with Reggie Ray, he introduced a practice called ‘Diagnostic Breathing’ which consciously divided the body into left and right, front and back and invited us to explore these inconsistencies.

For years, I was aware that my left side was very dominant and bright and the right side of my body was dull and off-line.

It wasn’t a central practice in that tradition, and I’ve never heard Reggie speak about these imbalances in detail, but I’ve become fascinated by them.

When I was on a retreat out in Colorado, high up in the Sange de Cristo mountains, I remember having an extraordinary experience around this asymmetry of the self.

I had been sitting for weeks, bringing awareness into the body. Feeling my somatic self. And then, one session, with a lovely teacher, Jessica Daniels holding the space up on the podium, I had this sudden and dramatic opening.

Like a gummy eye, slowly opening for the first time in a long while.

For years, I was aware that my left side was very dominant and bright, and the right side of my body was dull and off-line. This felt so ingrained that I often didn’t even notice it. I could sometimes sense how it manifested in an unconscious twist in my body towards the right. As if the left side were flinching.

Sitting in the Shrine Room in Crestone, with its vast plate-glass windows looking out over 50 miles of high-altitude ice plains, the right side suddenly opened up. Like a gummy eye, slowly opening for the first time in a long while.

And all at once, looking at Jessica, I felt a wonderful in-rush of heightened awareness. I felt enormous love for her, and all my grumpy, habitual projections onto the person on that podium dropped away.

It suddenly became clear to me that the right side of my body wasn’t dull at all. It was simply different.

The left side functioned well in a simple rational ‘this is this and that is that’ way. But the right side saw everything as a whole. When I ‘opened’ my right side to the world, I felt enormously connected and ‘in love’ with things. (This runs strangely counter to the idea of the left and right hemispheres. Since the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body – but ah well…)

This ability to see the world in two modes – from the left side and from the right – stayed with me for about a month or two after the retreat had ended and I returned home to the UK. I became really intrigued. And when my friend Kirsty Davidson, a yoga teacher and colleague from Holy Island, mentioned that yoga traditions teach that the left and right sides have different properties and sometimes switch. I was REALLY intrigued. Daniel’s teacher Gregor Maehle talks about this bilaterality in the energy body in great detail. According to the body maps of classical yoga, the two sides of the body are governed by two energy channels, the ida and the pingala.

One side is always more prominent than the other, they switch dominance through the course of the day.

Traditionally, the ida snakes left and right around the central channel but is predominantly left dominant. It is the bright white of the moon, and it is female-flavoured.

The Pingala is more to the right and is ‘tawny’ red, and is more male-flavoured. (Perhaps because I’m a queer man, I experience this differently. With the right, tawny as female and the white left as male.)

But what really intrigued me is that – according to Maehle – one side is always more prominent than the other. That they switch dominance through the course of the day. Switching in cycles of three to four hours, the ida and pingala take the dominant role at different times of the day. Sometimes the moon dominates, sometimes the sun.

Checking which side is dominant before you start a task can save you a lot of wasted time.

You can check this yourself by closing one nostril and then the other and checking which has the better airflow. Is your left side or right side clear when you check?

That’s not because you have a bunged up nose – but because the open channel is the active one right now.

This also has an impact on the sort of things you do. If you are in the Pingala phase, then better to be doing detailed cognitive work. Suppose you’re in the idea, then it is better to be doing more empathic or imaginative work.

Checking which side is dominant before you start a task can save you a lot of wasted time. So, – coming back to our starting question. When people find that their body is always shut down on the right side, it might be because they meditate at the same time every day. Their energy-body is switched leftwards at that point in the cycle. Checking which side is dominant later in the day or just before bed might give a different answer.

So much for the left-right asymmetries, but what about front and back? This is something that I am often encouraging my students to explore. Are you in the back of your experience or out in front?

Joyce’s famous quip about Mr Duffy, who “lived a short distance from his body”, is true for almost all of us. Generally, in the course of our working day, our awareness is not very embodied. Often dwelling at a distinct distance and in a distinct position vis-a-vis our embodied core. Where do you habitually hang out when you’re not consciously connecting to your body? Some people are a few feet over to the right, at head height. Some over to the left. Others squeezed as far forward in their self-space as they can be. A rarer few hang back towards the back of their experience.

It might be a peculiar question to ask yourself, but it’s a good one. Where do you habitually exist in space?

Is it even useful to be centred?

The NLP (neurolinguistic programming) people often point out that when people think about the past, their eyes go in one direction. When people are thinking about the future, they go in a different way. Likewise, I think different mind-states put us in different positions vis-a-vis our embodied core. It’s only somatic meditation that encourages us to hang out in the centre of our embodied core. And even that sometimes flummoxes us. As my students discover, it’s not always easy or possible to centre ourselves. And that brings me to my last point. Is it even useful to be centred? The whole narrative of meditation and therapy would say ‘Yes! of course, centring is essential’. But I might like to question that. When we strive towards any standardised state then we start to disparage the non-standardised. Being centred is just as much a goal as being perfect. And when we can’t be centred then we start to disparage our non-centred elements.

Perhaps, the myth of symmetry is the problem, not our wonkiness?

But perhaps, as classical yoga, points out, these asymmetries are not something to be problematised but rather to be celebrated?

Perhaps, there is a lot of information in the fact that we habitually live 1.4 metres to the left of our spine? Or habitually squash ourselves into the front of our being?

Perhaps, the myth of symmetry is the problem, not our wonkiness? “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson says. The late, great Jungian writer, James Hillman, dedicates a whole book (The Dream and the Underworld) to deconstructing the idea of balance and symmetry. He designates it as a ‘daytime fabrication’. Maybe the unsettling wonkiness of our nighttime dreaming is the reality?

We assume that one-part left will always be balanced with one-part right, but why? Reality is filled with massively unbalanced things. In the Universe, dark matter outweighs light-matter by a factor of 5. The sky is almost infinitely bigger than the Earth. It’s only our human eyes that make them equal. In fact, the whole idea of one thing having to have its equal and opposite is just a fabrication of the human mind.

When we embrace our asymmetries we are embracing the reality of ourselves and letting go of any pernicious templates of perfection

Perhaps the left side is small and bright but the right side is vast and tawny? Maybe our energy bodies are wildly, wildly asymmetrical. With a dark right side stretching out to infinity – utterly outweighing the small crust of left-side brightness?

Perhaps, the backspace is 108,000 kilometres deep and the front space is only 80 centimetres?

I guess this whole thing leads back to a simple conclusion: experience what is there not what you think should be there.

If your body is 95% to the right: how fascinating! What is that vast tract of right-handed-ness doing today? What’s happening unobserved over to the left?

If you live squashed into one millimetre in the front of your being: how illuminating! What does that feel like? How might it feel to ease yourself backwards?

If your centre of awareness is 17 inches above your left temple: good for you. What is the weather like up there this morning? And can you move it to the space above your right knee?

When we embrace our asymmetric, we embrace the reality of ourselves and let go of any pernicious templates of perfection. This makes us happier and – more importantly – kinder to other’s asymmetries.

It also makes us alert to quirks and contours of reality.

How queer and wondrous to live in such a crooked world.

I’d love to know your thoughts about your Asymmetric self. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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