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The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself. Anais Nin
Here’s an interesting exercise. You might surprise yourself.
Take a piece of paper and pen. (Yes, you have to get all oldschool on this. No laptops allowed.) Write down the question
If I were an animal, what animal would I be?
Clear your mind.
Write down your answer.
Now….switch your pen to your other hand, your nondominant writing hand, and keep it there.
Look over the question.
Take a deep, calming breath and settle into your mind again.
Put pen to paper. Don’t worry about the fact that your handwriting is about to resemble the scrawls of a psychotic first grader. Open yourself to the exercise. Suspend criticism. Just let yourself answer the question however you will; let the thoughts flow.
Chances are you wrote down two different answers.
When you write with your dominant writing hand (regardless of whether you are left- or right-handed), you access the logical, linear, verbal part of your mind. This is the everyday mind, and it dominates our culture.
This part of the brain seeks to protect us by conditioning us to protect what we have. It preserves the status quo. It keeps us stuck in patterns that no longer serve us – assuming they ever did – but haven’t killed us either, and the devil you know can seem a lot less frightening than the devil you don’t (even if the devil you know is eating you slowly). The dominant-hand brain does this by rationalizing, justifying, denying, minimizing and spinning reality so that we can believe what we need to be believe in order to get on with our day.
When answering with their dominant hand, most people write down horse, dog, cat or bird.
(I was no different. When I did this exercise, my dominant-hand answer was tiger.)
This tends to be an aspirational answer. In other words, this is how you would like to see yourself. This is the self-image to which you aspire.
When we switch over to the nondominant hand, the answers get a lot more interesting.
Switching hands activates what we think of as the right brain – the creative, holistic, subconscious, intuitive brain – that tends to be underdeveloped and underutilized. It lurks behind the so-called left brain, partly because our culture has traditionally prioritized left-brain thinking and also because all thoughts arising from the right brain have to be cleared through the left. This means that the left brain gets the final say (no matter how distorted or deluded).
The right brain is not concerned with protecting our ego and preserving the status quo. It’s more about reflecting the truth as we understand it. The subconscious is constantly absorbing and processing information, sending up hunches, flashes of insight, gut feelings. By switching the pen to your nondominant hand, it’s like you find a way to surface this hidden stream of nonverbal intelligence and translate it to words on the page.
The answer you wrote down with your nondominant hand is how you actually see yourself.
I surprised myself by writing down fox. Although my ‘tiger’ answer was predictable – I am fascinated by big cats, and would like to associate myself with their sleekness, strength, mystery and power – the ‘fox’ thing came out of nowhere. I could give a damn about foxes. In terms of the animal symbolism I have gravitated to over the years – lizards, owls, snakes, tigers, coyotes, dragons, butterflies, elephants – foxes have never been among them.
I went on to write
Crafty quick-witted adaptable burrowing elusive.
The funny thing was that this answer felt right, in a way that the tiger answer did not – felt more like wishful thinking. The burrowing resonated with me – I burrow into books, solitude, my own mind. A few days later, my new friend Erika Lyremark (also known as the Daily Whip) called me a “shapeshifter” – saying I move through different worlds, from Hollywood parties to tech gatherings to literary readings to blogging conferences. “Exploring,” I said, invoking the explorer archetype, but then I thought: adaptable.
I was fascinated by this exercise and immediately inflicted it on my nearest and dearest – or whomever was in range. My brother-in-law’s right-hand answer: tiger: largest cat beautiful dangerous solitary deadly. His left-hand answer: killer whale: cunning, smart, social, adaptable. My sister’s right-hand answer: eagle. Her left-hand answer: butterfly: transforms brings beauty to others weightless flickers unforgettable.
I texted her: Eagle vs. butterfly. What do u think?
She texted back: They both can fly….The eagle is a predator the butterfly is not unless you’re nectar.
I was struck by how, even though we’re all gentle people – “nice to the bone” as a close friend once called me, not necessarily as a compliment, since her mother wanted to know what was wrong with me (perhaps because I had offered to chop celery and carrots; I like chopping) – the three of us had all likened ourselves to big predators. My brother-in-law is six foot seven and a Hollywood stuntman, so physically this made sense for him – although I noted his shift from tiger to killer whale, an animal known as a gentle giant of the sea. Had our left-brain, linear, achievement-oriented culture conditioned us to think this way – aspiring to be dangerous instead of savoring an ability to bring beauty to the world?
We want to think of ourselves as powerful – but is being the biggest, strongest, most “dangerous”, the only way to be powerful?
Of course it isn’t. I recently described a dream to a friend, the most vivid dream I’ve had in years. I was on a ship in the middle of the ocean, no land in sight. A massive sea serpent uncoiled from the water, lifting high overhead, head slashing down to the deck to swallow men whole like chocolate bars. I realized its skin was protected by a seatbelt-like kind of armor (don’t ask) that had a frayed hole in it. I lifted the bow I was suddenly holding and sent an arrow into that single vulnerable spot. The beast collapsed into the water like a balloon animal deflating.
I woke up with such a sense of ick and distaste that I had to remind myself that I had killed the freaking thing. That was good, wasn’t it?
“So do you think this dream is about power?” my friend asked.
I hemmed and hawed. “I don’t know. Maybe. I guess so.”
“You’re the only person on this boat who figures out how to kill this monster and you don’t think this dream is about power?”
I had no answer to that.
“It’s not a brute-strength kind of power,” said my friend. “You don’t clobber the thing into oblivion. You use strategy, precision and focus.”
“So this dream,” I said slowly, “is about the power of my intellect?”
My friend went, “ding ding ding ding ding!” as if calling in the answer on a game show.
I thought: Crafty.
If my brother-in-law is a huge, gentle predator, and my butterfly sister isn’t a predator at all, I am a small, wily sort, a hunter who is also hunted (and sometimes ganged up on by idiots on horses). Giving up this aspirational fantasy of myself-as-tiger releases me into a better understanding of who I am, as opposed to who I think I should be. I adapt. I explore, shapeshift and burrow into an underground that is rich with networked tunnels and its own thriving society. I’m not particularly exotic. I don’t have the size or the strength – but I have the mind. I can live with that. By letting go of certain conventional notions of power (tiger!) I can claim, or reclaim, the power I have.
Because even a fox can bring down a monster.
What about you?
If you do this exercise, and it leads to any thoughts or insights, please share below.