Reflection 5: Sunflowers

October 13, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

My partner lives in an apartment above her pottery studio. Bed and computer on one end, counter, stove, and refrigerator on the other, a one-room apartment with no secrets because you can see the whole space and everything in it from wherever you happen to be. I went up to get something (I forget what) and came back down so we could go for a walk. “Do you like the sunflowers?” she asked. “What sunflowers?” “In the vase on the counter.” I’d walked within six inches of them and never saw them. Not once but twice.


Like dying crows and crashing airplanes, consciousness can present us with figments. Too, like mustard jars and sunflowers, it can hide objects in clear view. These effects are often transitory, dependent on storylines offered as snap judgments, on expectations, on the level of attention, or what else is on our minds at the time. It’s as if consciousness had a mind of its own and sometimes played tricks on us just for fun. But of course there aren’t two minds in our heads. In the examples I have given, I am really playing tricks on myself. Consciousness and what I call my mind are really one and the same. Consciousness is my mind. There’s no tiny projection room in my head where I screen my latest takes on reality.


The point is that consciousness should not be taken at face value. It requires periodic checking and verification. In fact, it is wise to doubt every phenomenon that rises in the mind from any source because impostors and rip-offs—like hackers and con-men—are always with us. Even autobiographical memory is suspect. I was shocked to hear my younger brother claim that he was the one who liked Brussels sprouts when we were kids, not me. Did the good old days play as we remember them? Probably not. There’s no warrantee on childhood memories. I have a vivid recollection from when I was eighteen months old of playing with a dog under the dining room table , of climbing on a chair, then onto the table, and being held to look into a white bassinette to see my baby brother just home from the hospital. Did that really happen? If so, it would be my earliest memory. I tell the story, but I have no way of knowing if it is true.


Even dreams seem to be true at the time, and they can be pretty preposterous. I am always wandering around in dreamland subway stations trying to get somewhere or other. Often I don’t have change to put in the turnstile, so I go through endless doors and down endless stairs trying to get to the trains. The only reality check is to wake up, which I always do gratefully. Illusions, delusions, hallucinations, apparitions—we’re always glad to see them go. Unless they’re built into our belief system, in which case we defend them to the death.


These days I picture the U.S. economy as a kind of sandbox where grownups play at making a living without having to work. This kind of self-deception is more common than we like to think. Not my self-deception this time, the traders’, bankers’, and lenders’. They may claim now to have seen the collapse looming, but they stuck to their posts to make the last possible dime. Their consciousness made them do it. The phenomena dancing in their heads, driving them on to a richer life. Which now appears not to have been real. The whole show was a delusion all along.


The problem is a general failure to doubt the horsepower aspirations of our souped-up economy. And beyond that, to question the wisdom of so many people trying to live so high on the hog off the markets of our one little Earth. The truth is out: only ecosystems and the environment are real; the rest is sham and pretense. Evolution has geared consciousness to survival issues facing Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. It hasn’t caught up with the life situations of the twenty-first century. And won’t catch up till consciousness evolves to a yet higher stage. Which, at the rate mutations get spread around, will take millions of years, not the few decades we may have available.


Reality checking on a grand scale is the kind of regulation we must insist on if we are going to stretch those decades into any sort of livable future. It will have to apply to all of us, all the time. And checkers will have to check on the checkers in an endless loop. That way we can tug on our own bootstraps and not have to wait for evolution to do the dirty work for us. ¦


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