The Nine Palaces of the Brain
by Robert Campbell
The summer sun scorches the Sahara sands, while daytime temperatures hover as high as 135 degrees
Fahrenheit. It’s like a very dry sauna, with a haze of heat wavering over the endless undulating sand. The sand
rolls on forever, across an ocean of long slow swells, while off in another direction it may be tossed into waves
three hundred feet high. Dunes roam for many miles, as if touched by a hit and miss tempest. Other places,
naked limestone stands painfully exposed in sculptured forms, along fault lines wrenched by continental
collisions between the African plate and Europe. In some strange locations, tectonic shocks have spawned
pipsqueak volcanoes, less than a hundred feet high, that have peppered the desert floor with black flint-like
rocks, the size of a fist. One can even find acres of crystals lying in thick broken slabs, glistening in the sun, or
dozens of whole trees a hundred feet tall, petrified where they were felled by an indifferent shrug of the Earth,
thousands of years ago. Some alien places look like weird scenes of a netherworld planet in a science fiction
Although it rarely rains enough to wet the sand, this total absence of vegetation supports a tenuous chain of
animate life, dependent in part upon an archaic store of dormant seeds, hidden amid the grains of sand. A few
half starved beetles, flies, scorpions, horned vipers, small lizards, tiny kangaroo rats, mice, and two species of
fox, all feed on one another for survival without ever having a drink of water. The invertebrates, the reptiles, and
the mammals are each represented in a vaguely nagging memory of evolution’s ponderous steps. Even this
faint recollection is destined to be eroded by another of man’s blunders. The ranks of the ubiquitous fly are now
ominously swelled by its red-eyed cousin, the deadly screw fly. A minor wound becomes a lethal injury once the
screw fly implants its larvae.
The only humans in this unforgiving land are vampires of a kind. They suck out the vital fluids of our deceased
invertebrate ancestors, long since interred a mile or two beneath the sand. They suck out the incubated black
blood of the ancients to feed our ravenous mechanical creations. It’s the percolated vapors of death that our
Frankenstein monsters resurrect and belch in the air. Our modern civilization would flounder without this ancient
legacy of life energy, bequeathed in death, during the formation of the continents over a period of several
hundred million years. It’s a curious thing.
It’s also a curious thing that a common pass-time of oilfield workers in remote desert locations consists of
searching the sand for relics of aboriginal cultures, as if our thirst for ancestral blood carried with it an obligatory
quest into our roots. A hunt in a likely spot might turn up an arrowhead or two, on rare occasions an axe-head,
or stones used in grinding grain. In one forlorn corner at the end of the earth, a manmade wooden stockade,
five meters in diameter, pokes petrified through the sand, still intact after thousands of years, since the early
domestication of animals. It wasn’t always a desert. It’s a curious thing that the desert advanced with our
I’ve been absent from Canada for many years and headed east from Libya to go home, not west, making stops
in Kenya and India before arriving in Thailand. Probing questions about our roots and our destiny pursued me
like an occupational hazard. I too worked at engineering the robbery of invertebrate graves.
The flight south from Cairo paralleled the Nile, affording an opportunity to follow the ribbon of green from the
window, retracing steps I had taken a decade before, south from Giza to Thebes, the Valley of the Kings, then
Aswan, and on across Lake Nasser, past Abu Simbel, and beyond. Early civilizations had advanced up the Nile
until halted by rapids, while overland travel was formidable. The narrow Nile valley is the only break in the
bleakest of deserts, stretching more than three thousand miles across the breadth of North Africa, from the Red
Sea to the Atlantic coast. For thousands of years it was the only tenuous connection between Mediterranean
cultures and the ancient heart of Africa.
It’s twelve hundred miles south of Cairo before a tinge of green begins to grace the land, flowing in the deeper
shades of a pastel wash through the wadis. From six miles high it becomes a study of rhythm in color, playing
over the increasingly violent contours of the land, reaching up into the Ethiopian highlands. Then it falls again
into the arid basin around Lake Turkana and the Great Rift Valley where man was born. The flight followed the
Rift Valley as it rose again with the terrain, traversing the boundless savannah, punctuated with lush highlands
that constitute much of East Africa. Our descent into Nairobi began as I gazed into the massive cauldron of
Mount Longonot. The volcanoes here are not pipsqueak.
The land is magnificent, a mile and more high astride the equator, temperate year around, with grand
panoramic vistas mapping the tortuous route of the Great Rift Valley. One feels ancient echoes of an ancient
plan, still striving to come to fruition, still churning with tectonic energy. A suitable setting was created by the
squirming bowels of the planet. Mother Earth has heaved, then rifted, in the labor of giving issue to the
mammals, then man. One feels the troubled heart of mankind, struggling to sing a song so rich in harmony yet
so fraught with perils.
The migration was on, more than a million animals roaming north across the carcass of the land, like the red
eyed flies advancing toward them. The thought conjured horrors compounding those of AIDS and a host of
other impending disasters. Undaunted, the tribesmen still tend their herds, bleeding their cattle from a wound in
the neck to sustain a diet of blood and milk.
As in Canada there is some political discontent. In Kenya alone there are forty-eight tribes, most with their own
language, belonging to three completely different language families.
Language is such a mixed blessing. As a social instrument serving to bring us together, it often turns traitor,
claiming dominance as an end in itself. The medium becomes the message. Cultures become closed. The world
fragments into meaningless strife, each fragment claiming the illusion of unity by asserting the supremacy of self
to the exclusion of others. What a glorious feeling is that feeling of unity. The history of human carnage attests
to its unmerciful power.
Language has altered the workings of our nervous systems on our climb from the cradle of the Great Rift Valley.
As we’ve marched through the ranks of evolution, shedding skins, the cerebral hemispheres have blossomed to
mirror in conscious awareness the ancestral animating energies that play through our autonomic nervous
system. As surely as we probe the desert sands to fuel our machines, we also resurrect ancestral visceral
feelings to fuel the process of thought and action, with repercussions back through the clamorous chains of our
own evolutionary advance.
A common limb structure throughout the vertebrate species is essential for this common exploration,
refinement, and integration of experience in the biosphere. Through language we are able to abstract
experience, and reformulate behavior, with echoes ringing back through the mammals, the birds and the
reptiles, quadrupeds all, all but the limbless serpents of Eden. Other echoes ring back to the invertebrates that
explored the basics of sensitive response, and to the plants that worked out the vital foundations of cellular life.
These emotive energies are the songs that strive for harmony in our heart, for we embrace the whole,
biologically anchored to our biospheric roots. We feel them every time we marvel at a sunset, or smell the
blossoms burst forth in spring, while romantic fantasies dance in our minds.
More than this, language has polarized the pattern of mental activity. It has divided the blossom of our brain
down the center, into two complementary functions, both firmly anchored to our common ancient emotional
apparatus—the autonomic nervous system. Language and related techniques of behavior, are the province of
only the left hemisphere in right handed people. The mute but intuitive right hemisphere is holistic. It integrates
structural relationships, aesthetics, and deep spiritual concerns. The right side works out in abstract design
what the left side gives expression to. It’s like designing a house as opposed to building it, both sides fueled by
the desire and the need for a home.
This constitutes three polar relationships to our being, and to the creative process in general. It’s a trinity of
polar pairs that seeks unity through mutual balance and harmony with three corresponding realms of contextual
experience: one is spiritual and one is social, both fueled by the third—our evolutionary heritage, to which we
owe a meaningful response.
The three polar relationships engage the stream of circumstances that are specific for each one of us, and yet
the process is synchronous for us all. There is thus also a universal trinity that integrates and regulates the
whole of experience as one. Unity subsumes a trinity that consists of an interacting matrix of nine. A magical
number is nine, reflecting a universal system of order, by which experience is organized, intelligent and alive.
Our earliest hominid ancestors, Australopithicus and homo Habilis, perished in our three million year trek from
the valley, though the music still rings in the land of their bones. Homo Erectus was our first forebear to leave a
few fossil remains scattered through Europe and Asia, followed by early forms of Homo Sapiens. Neanderthal
man became extinct with the predominance of people like ourselves, about thirty-five thousand years ago, but
there was still not a footprint in the Western Hemisphere. The cave paintings Lascaux, Altimira and other sites,
vividly attest to man’s conscious reflection on the animating spirits that fueled his thoughts, and to his incredibly
keen perception of their style, form and feeling.
It wasn’t until some fifteen thousand years later that the first humans ventured into Alaska, advancing
throughout the Americas with the retreat of the last ice age. Although a spirit of great wonder must have
prevailed as our wanderlust firmly established a global human presence, life was fraught with uncertainty and
painfully short. A longing for a permanent home began to tug at the heart of the nomad. Spirit cultures began to
transform. It began as an isolated new note, then a new tune rippled out in a widening circle. The left brain
began to explore new techniques of living. Permanent settlements began appearing about nine thousand years
ago, near the eastern Mediterranean and the northern extension of the Rift Valley plate boundary, while the
ripples ran dry in the advancing sands of the Sahara. The grand plan had long since been etched in the face of
It’s only in the last few thousand years that complex civilizations have emerged in the Middle East, Asia, and
Europe, while the heart of Africa continued to hum its ancient melody. Rendered from conquests and human
suffering, these civilizations nevertheless nurtured a nexus of ideas and spiritual traditions centered mainly
around two focal points. While the one lies near the eastern Mediterranean, the other lies near another great rift
in the earth’s tortured surface—the Indus Valley, at the western end of the Himalayan massif. From them two
complementary streams have diverged, once again in the same pattern as man’s cerebral development.
The earliest testament to these developments confirms both a profound intuitive insight into the nature of the
creative process, and a powerful capacity to give it expression in form. Two of the three great pyramids that
stand like a universal trinity at Giza, are flanked by a set of three smaller pyramids. They are positioned like six
puppet sentries to the stream of particular circumstance. The stark geometric accuracy of the pyramids
presents convincing evidence that the site was not a complex of tombs, but a temple with tombs adjacent. The
pyramids themselves totally lack the usual decor of a tomb, and mummies have never been found in pyramids.
It’s significant that the digits from zero to nine are the basis of the decimal system and the recurrence of One. A
tiny tenth pyramid is indicative of this, stationed alone beside the central pyramid of Kephran, while the sphinx
squats in front with the visage of man gazing out of an animal’s body. It is an obvious sign that the site is a
tribute to the evolutionary process and not to the vanity of Pharaohs.
These nine pyramids are monuments to an intelligent system of cosmic order. The cosmic order was called
maat by the Egyptians, and was further represented by a divine Ennead. Maat is mirrored by profound spiritual
insights that bloomed in the Vedic tradition of the Indus Valley, and that eventually crystallized into the Hindu
and Buddhist religions.
I said good-bye to my friends in Kenya and a few hours later met with others in Bombay. Bombay, a city of
twelve million and rising, with five million homeless, five million living under the shelter of scrap plastic bags, five
million and rising. Bombay, where labor is almost worthless, while a modest home costs a million American
We traveled south to the enchanting land of Kohlapur, where green hills and valleys abound with plenty, where
people have homes to live in and still glow with an ancient faith. We arrived during the nine day festival of
Dattatreya, the three faced, six armed representation of One universal God. Our gracious hosts took us to a
temple on top of a mountain that looked like the magical land of Oz.
In the Vedic tradition of the Indus Valley, with Dravidian roots going back to the time of the pyramids at Giza, a
universal system of cosmic order has always been associated with divinity. The system was first known as the
Rta, associated with the omniscient god Varuna, substantiating all that is right. Most prominent among later
descriptions of a supreme God was Prajapati, the father God, the one Lord of all created things, and a
manifestation of the Rta. He was represented as transcendent, standing apart from the world as the creative
source to which all returns, and also as imminent, living within its substance. This later became translated as
Brahman and Atman, the universal and particular aspects of the self. Brahman has been variously represented
as three universal gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, each one manifesting distinct universal characteristics of
experience that in Dattatreya are mutually interdependent as one. This integral trinity, with six arms relating to
the particular aspects of experience, thus constitutes an interacting creative matrix of nine.
The Rta later became known as the Dharma, from which the law of karma derives, along with a host of other
philosophical postulates about the nature of experience. Karma is a moral law, according to which the intention
of our actions determines our ultimate spiritual destiny. It’s a causal law that transcends space and time,
involving the intuitive powers of right brain function.
Far to the west, at the other focal point, Greek thought grew like a shadow of ideas that had long been
entertained in the Indus Valley. The two focal points had been directly linked, first by the Persians, then by the
Greeks, for two centuries both before and after the time of Aristotle. But ideas that had been the stimulus for
early Greek thought became reinterpreted according to explicit formulations of logic. For the most part Greek
thought subsequent to the time of Alexander the Great was language bound, a left brain exercise. Aristotle,
Euclid, and subsequent thinkers in their new tradition, rejected the right brain reliance on spiritual insight in the
tradition of Plato and pre-Socratic thinkers. They adopted instead a causal law that was manacled to a chain of
events in space and time. Through the agency of the Roman Empire, Greek thought became transplanted
throughout Europe, alongside yet another manifestation of a universal trinity, that of Christianity. Even the
selfless message of Christ became plagued by the divisive left brain logic of language.
With the rediscovery of America, the Whiteman’s emphasis on explicit technique prevailed over the intuitive spirit
of the Indian, while the westward expansion fueled the rapid development of modern science and technologya
left brain exercise. A global economic monolith, embracing even the ancient heart of Africa, now relies like a
Frankenstein zombie on a science that denies any place to subjective values. These it excludes as
anthropomorphic aberrations, claiming instead that all events are caused by specific physical linkages occurring
as a chain of events through space and time. Even though no sane person fully believes this, it leaves no
logical place for the human spirit as a morally responsible basis of being. Even though this science has brought
the world closer together, and accumulated an enormous fund of valuable knowledge, of itself it has done
nothing to advance our understanding of the human condition.
Complementary to this language bound westward development of technology, there was an eastward spiritual
development that had to surmount formidable natural barriers. With the opening of the silk route through the
Indus Valley, in the late second century BC, both Greek art and the Buddhist teaching of the dharma began
making their way into China, while Greek philosophy was left by the wayside.
The Sino-Tibetan mind has been conditioned by languages of a completely different kind. There is an absence
of prepositions, articles and tenses to verbs, that in the Indo-European languages link ideas up in a flow
through space and time. Each noun belongs to a general classification, indicating that all things have both a
particular and a universal characteristic. Ideas are constructed from random concepts and fragments of
experience that are integrated into a holistic nexus of meaning that is communicated as a gestalt. The Chinese
script is constructed of ideograms that can be read and understood in completely different languages, of which
there are many in China. It’s implicitly clear to the Chinese mind that one universal system of understanding
can find many varieties of expression. Being more holistic the Sinio-Tibetan languages are more attuned to
right brain function, which may explain why the Far East remains a spirit culture, with its tribal roots still intact
in mountainous regions.
I arrived back in Thailand in the midst of a deluge that lasted a week, unusual even for the rainy season. The
streets were flooded and the traffic horrendous. Bangkok is a city bursting at the seams like a shackled
Frankenstein trying to break loose. The pace of development in some parts of the country is frantic, in sharp
contrast to the otherwise most pleasant and resilient of people. It’s easy to feel at home in Thailand, whatever
During the first nine days of the ninth lunar month in the Chinese calendar, I went to the festival of the Nine
Emperor Gods, at a Chinese temple in south Thailand, one of scores of temples where it is held throughout the
Malay peninsula. The temples typically combine both Buddhist and Taoist religious practices, and perform rites
related to both Confucian traditions and the Animist spiritual roots of Asia, all of which form the structure of
Chinese religion. People learn from both the similarities and differences of various religions without opposing
one to the other in the logic of language, as so often happens in the west. Many Thai Buddhists actively
participate with those of Chinese descent, acting along side them as spirit mediums. Like the Native Americans
it’s a general belief throughout the Far East that everything has a spirit, that everything is alive, from the land
that you build a house on to the stars in the sky.
The Nine Emperor Gods are associated with the nine stars in the big dipper, including the pole star about which
the world turns, also with the nine planets, the nine orifices of the body, the nine palaces of the brain
corresponding to the nine original heavens and more. In Taoist texts the number nine represents unity. The
nine divinities are believed to be the nine celestial breaths of the Supreme One.
Some believe that the nine Emperor gods are in turn represented by many spirits, and that it is these, not the
Gods themselves, that enter and possess those who volunteer to act as spirit mediums at various times during
the festival. The mediums are mostly young men, although women also participate. All mediums must be of
good character, abstaining from meat, intoxicants, sex, and vices generally, both before and during the festival.
This is essential to avoid negative effects to themselves during the powerful states of possession, of which they
retain no memory.
Several hundred spirit mediums may perform at any one temple. Their bodies exhibit a continual tremor of
about two beats a second, when in a state of possession, yet their movements are flawless. They have a
strange omniscient quality about them, they act spontaneously and they know exactly what to do. They speak a
dialect of Hokien Chinese during these states, even though they may not ordinarily speak the language at all.
Their feats are truly remarkable.
During a street procession, in which the mediums may pause along the way to bless various households, many
have their cheeks pierced with long metal skewers, up to an inch in diameter, yet there is no bleeding, not even
on inserting or removing the rods. The wounds remain clean inside, as if some power over the physiology of
the body has constricted all the vessels and capillaries to prevent any loss of blood. They heal quickly, with little
scarring. Various other performances focus on different feats, such as bathing with a cauldron of boiling oil,
climbing up and down a twelve meter ladder with razor sharp rungs, walking on fire, and others.
Back in Bangkok, girdered glass fingers reach for the sky as the monster reaches for ever more power. In the
pollution choked arteries that feed the beast the numbers of street children increase in proportion to the GNP,
while the price of a home has soared far beyond reach for the average person. We seem at the mercy of a
merciless science that excludes human values from its realm, while it largely blinds and distorts intuitive
concerns of our spirit. Our resultant impaired ability to exercise intelligent restraint or direction now threatens
our tenuous umbilical dependence on our biospheric roots. The enshrined central paradigm of our science
hasn't changed significantly in the two thousand three hundred years since Aristotle, and now that we have
surmounted the natural constraints of Mother Earth, the three polar aspects of our experience are in mutual
conflict. A space-time chain of physical linkages is a pitifully simplistic view of the universe, and one powerless
to come to terms with the problems that face us.
We can’t dispense with the global economic monolith that we have come to depend on. We must transform and
refine the technology that directs it. We need a pragmatic new science based on a more fundamental insight
into the creative process as a living reality. It must implicitly embrace our cosmological and biospheric roots
while freely bringing into impartial assessment both our scientific developments and our spiritual concerns,
however diverse they may be. It must allow of unlimited diversity of expression while enhancing our mutual
appreciation of a cosmic order that is implicitly the basis of all meaning and values. It must provide a universally
valid non-linguistic bridge between intuition and technique, without killing the music in our ancient heart.
However profoundly difficult this may appear to be, no other course can hope to bring the three polar aspects
of our being into mutual balance and harmony.
Fundamental to an insight into the cosmic order is the nature of unity in an incredibly diverse and ever
changing world. It is the pursuit of that glorious feeling of unity that has been man’s nemesis down through the
ages, proclaiming one culture, one religion, one King or one cause, supreme over all others. The plot in the
story of oppression is always the same. Only the cast changes. The nature of this ambiguity between one and
many, each and all, the universal and the particular, must be rendered transparent, thus opening avenues for
the intelligent reconciliation of self and other in complex social, spiritual and natural environments. The wealth
of our experience lies in its diversity, not in blind monolithic beliefs.
Even in a nation so blessed with natural wealth and beauty as Canada, it can be a forbidding land where we
can also find it difficult to show a little warmth toward one another. We seem too snow blind to appreciate that
two founding cultures with a common history saves both of us from cultural closure in the illusory gratification of
self as an end in itself. We seem too tragically lost in a blizzard to comprehend that we need each other to
save us from ourselves, that this is the wealth of our national soul. If we can’t work it out in such a boundless
land what hope can there be for the world?
The Nine Palaces of the Brain