Reflection 30: Barack and I

November 29, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

Barack Obama and I make a pretty good team. He handles his end, I handle mine. I’ll start with my end since it’s fresh in my mind.


I’ve honed Saturday mornings to a fine routine. Get up, shower, put a week’s dirty clothes in the washer, make breakfast, put clothes in the dryer, read the paper, take clothes out of the dryer, sort and fold, make the bed, blog, go to the post office, make lunch, and so on.


This Saturday is different. I get up too late to beat other tenants to the washer. Do breakfast first. I still take eye drops after cataract surgery, so squirt both eyes. Made yogurt last night, so go to take the four quart jars out of the oven (warmed by the oven light), and find one jar has cracked in the night. The bottom of the oven is a pool of milky water. Reaching for paper towels, I knock six plastic water bottles off the shelf where I’d left them in plain view as a reminder to recycle them. Kicking bottles aside, I kneel and sop up the mess. Throwing wet towels toward the wastebasket, I notice flying ants crawling up the wall, a squadron of five. Squish the ants. Notice others on the floor. Squish them, too. Back to the oven. Take more eye drops. Start heating buckwheat for breakfast. Continue kneeling, kicking bottles, sopping, squishing ants. Put broken shards in the sink, rinse, put in drainer to dry so I can recycle them. Eat breakfast. Take the last of this round of drops.


Whenever I revert to the standard routine, I don’t have to think about it. I just do it by rote. This particular Saturday my consciousness is in gear the whole time. I am keenly alert, aware even of being aware. I notice that I notice myself noticing. I am blogging as I live the event, separating novel sequences from the standard routine. For the first time appreciating the routine as what it is.


Phone rings. It’s Carole. We talk about what to have for dinner, who will bring what. I have rice and broccoli, she turkey leftovers. I tell her about my morning so far. She tells me Barack Obama held three press conferences in three days. He’s really taking charge. The market has noticed and held its own. Meanwhile, Michele asks him if he’s going to take the children to school tomorrow. Sounds a lot like my day. He handles the financial mess, I clean the oven; he takes the kids to school, I kill flying ants. Between the two of us there’s hope. If we all do our part.


Such is consciousness. With eyes and ears open, and wits about us, we can plunge into novel situations. Rise above our habitual selves. Handle things our mother’s never told us about.


Consciousness is closely related to imagination and creativity. To looking ahead, not back. Thinking outside the box. Rising to the occasion. Doing what needs to be done.


Too, I think consciousness is contagious. It takes one person noticing something new, then acting appropriately. Dealing with the problem. That’s called leadership. The rest of us wake up, open our eyes, and see what now seems so obvious but was hidden only yesterday.


It’s been a great Saturday so far. Hope is in the air. The sun is shining, the stove is clean, Barack is on top of things. The day isn’t done yet, but we’ve made a good beginning.



Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat

November 28, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

It is evening. I am in the kitchen putting away dishes. The drainer is to the left of the sink, the cupboard to the right and above. The cupboard door is hinged on the left, so when I open it, it blocks my way as I move back and forth. I move out and around the cupboard door, out and around. Suddenly a loud shriek—I have stepped on the cat. Leaping reflexively, I do some fancy footwork to release its tail from underfoot. In my mind, I picture a strange cat looking up at me—mildly I would say—blue-gray face surrounded by a mane of long fur. Trouble is, there is no cat. I have not had a cat in my apartment for over twenty-five years.


Moving back from cupboard to dish drainer, I caught the open cupboard door with my shoulder, swinging it open wider than usual. The shriek was the bottom hinge complaining under stress. I don’t remember it squeaking before, but there it was, complaining. My immediate response was to import a cat into consciousness, as if an imaginary animal would explain the whole thing. I responded quickly and appropriately to the cat that wasn’t there, and quite inappropriately to the hinge that was and always had been there. Now, where did that cat come from—that specific cat I saw looking back at me? I’d lived with several cats in the past, but never one like that. It looked like your basic tabby, a stock cat ready to leap out of the wings on cue when the occasion demanded. Not like a real cat which would take its time and probably head the other way, this one was right there in my mind when consciousness called for it. The meaning of that shriek was right there, a cat, not a dry hinge. By way of proof, a clip-art figment to embody the shriek in my ears.


It was as if my consciousness demanded an explanation. As if meaning must be made at any cost. But since feeling is first, as the poet says, maybe it was feeling, not meaning, that made me jump. That might explain the whole situation, even if it had to conjure up a cat to stand in for the true explanation. Which was that the shriek I heard startled me. Upset me. Made me feel guilty. The alarm had sounded. What was I to do? In stepping back to avoid the cupboard door, I put my foot on the cat, which obligingly howled, so I (feeling responsible) immediately leapt up and, mid-air, “saw” poor tabby, a ready stand-in for the source of the squeak, which was ambiguous.


All this happened in half a second or less, without rehearsal. The sequence ran: step back to avoid cupboard door, catch the door with my shoulder, causing a hinge to squeak, which I hear and link to stepping back, as if I had put my foot on the sound-maker, so I leap up to remove my foot, and justify that move by producing a cat out of my mental bag of tricks, which is always handy for use in emergencies. Rube Goldberg couldn’t have done it better.


This episode reminds me of seeing a black trash bag in the road as a dying crow (see Reflection 1: Dying Crow) or mistaking a rooftop TV antenna for a crashing jet (see Reflection 4: Crash). I’d guess now that crow, plane, and cat all came from the same ever-ready source. The hinge may have produced the sound, but the feeling that I was responsible (because I had stepped back) produced the leap and, at the same time, the cat. Somebody is watching my every move, just waiting for disaster to strike, preparing me to act intentionally in an emergency. That somebody lives inside my body with me, watching from the shadows of my mind. A kind of alter ego that, though wholly unknown to me, thinks far faster than I can. If not a somebody, then that fast thinker, whatever its form, is a silent servant of my own consciousness.


It’s as if I anticipate catastrophe at every moment, and at some level of awareness am prepared to act. Maybe I cast dire expectations onto my life world according to the specific situation I find myself in. Cats belong underfoot in kitchens, descending jets would be appropriate at rooftop level, crows by the roadside are familiar sights from a moving car. In a crisis, expectation supplies the speediest explanation of what is happening. It doesn’t wait to figure things out. Faster than a speeding bullet, a probable explanation is right where it is needed.


Like shockwaves preceding that bullet, expectations seem to radiate from the leading edge of my experience. Expectations that may be, 1) fulfilled, 2) denied, or 3) partially fulfilled. In each of the three cases—cat, jet, crow—there is a partial resemblance to the sensory phenomenon that caught my attention. The hinge did cry out like a cat. The TV antenna was swept back like the wings of a jet; both are metallic and glisten in the sun. The wafting trash bag fluttered as a dying crow might lift its wing. In each case, location was appropriate, the phenomenon apt. Apt, yes, but misidentified.


So my own expectations prepare me for fast action, as the Secret Service prepares its clients. Expectation serves me as a hidden secret service to alert me to occasions when I must act faster than I can think. It is at the forefront of my loop of engagement with the current situation, consciousness following behind to mop up when the situation I anticipate is poorly fulfilled. This doesn’t happen just occasionally. Every time the phone rings, I hazard a guess who it might be. When the doorbell rings, I come up with a quick list of possible visitors. I am full of dire predictions of what could go wrong in almost any situation. Raising children, I always saw danger lurking in the most innocent situation. The Scout’s basic message is, “Be prepared.” Rightly or wrongly, some part of me always is—or tries to be.


Consciously or unconsciously, life events always happen in a context of expectancy. Under comparable circumstances, we rely on our experience in the past in looking ahead. Current and future life situations are, well . . . situated in our pasts. That’s how we generate our expectations in extrapolating into the unknown. Not consciously, but we do it just the same. Life worlds unfold through successive approximations. The broader and deeper our experience, the better forecasters and prophets we become. Until a singularity occurs, an event rare or unique in our experience—tsunami, earthquake, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. Then expectation proves quite useless.


Back to the clip-art cat. Evidently, I brought that cat with me as I unloaded the dish drainer. And cast it before me just in case I might be called to act quickly upon hearing a sharp yowl. Squeaky hinge, angry cat—same thing. My expectations aren’t that finely tuned. I think it was that back step that made the cat the most likely option. Unwittingly, I have certainly stepped on many a cat in my day. Evidently that memory is still very much with me now. A possibility I wish to avoid, and if I can’t avoid it, then my secret service has trained me to make a fast response.


So, how does it run? Tying these stages together, I see a looping engagement with my situation as it unfolds in consciousness:


1) I act—Put dishes away, step back, brush cupboard door.

2) Feedback—Sound of squeaky hinge.

3) My expectation interprets the sound—Phenomenal cry of angry cat.

4) My reaction to interpretation—I feel responsible, so move my feet as if from a cat.

5) Expectancy is not done yet—To spur me, it flashes a stock image of a blue-gray cat.

6) Sensing cognitive dissonance, I check the situation—There is no cat.

7) Looking for the source of the sound, I move the cupboard door—It squeaks.

8) I process the above events by writing this blog.


What I make of all this is that I engage phenomena as if they represent goings-on in the real world. Until I catch them faking it on their own. On my own, for I am the faker and none other, caught in the grip of my past experience. Just as I am the believer that the phenomena I entertain fairly represent the situation I am in. This is one of life’s most basic illusions.


The greatest mystery here is how expectancy backed up its claim by pulling a stock photo out of its bag of tricks. I kept seeing the same image all evening. Even after I had gone to bed, there was that damned cat, the most innocent face ever put on an unidentified squeaky phenomenon (USP).










(Copyright © 2008)

A funny thing happened on the way to the blogosphere:


Clarity (topic of my previous blog) jumped right out of my head and ran away from me out into the wide open Internet. Leaving me, its master who created it, unclear yet again. Thankless wretch! As if it had a mind of its own and was not my. . . my. . . intellectual property. My creature. My own flesh and blood. Here I slave over a persnickety computer for hours at a time, trying to get down the workings of my mind as seen from the inside. Trying to get my blog finished in time to post it before the next installment starts bawling for my attention. That’s how it is with consciousness, one thing after another. Without letup. I tell you, there’s no end to it.


Whenever I get clear on something, I want it to stay clear so I can spread the word. Not just act for myself, but get others to see things as I do, and act the same way. I want it to get around that I have hit upon not just a truth for me, but a Great Truth that’s true for Everybodee. If everybody looks at the world as I do, then things will be O.K. Keep looking on your own as you do now and, Brother, that’ll be the end of civilization as we know it. We can’t let that happen. I’ve done the hard part, getting to clarity, to Truth. I’ve had a Vision with a capital V, you might say. All you have to do is hop on board and subscribe to my vision. That’s right, just sign your name here. Friend, I extend my hand in welcome. Thanks for joining this growing band of right-thinking patriots who know a Great Truth when they see it.


O.K., so it’s a caricature, but the lampoon artist who wrote it is hidden in the wings of my consciousness, ever-ready to cry the merits of seeing the world my way, which (truth be told) is always a distortion. Clarity of vision and understanding comes from emphasizing one perspective over its rivals in consciousness. To achieve it, we do violence to alternative claims in the act of suppressing them. When we act on the basis of personal clarity, we often do violence to those who are equally clear from perspectives that don’t jibe with our own because their life experiences are different from ours. That’s where gang wars come from, like mice squiggling from piles of old rags.


In projecting our clarity outward, we are right in acting for ourselves—but only for ourselves. We do well to respect others who act in the light of their clear convictions, which are often not easy for us to appreciate. They may be similar to ours; they may be radically different. Right to life or right to choose, which is it to be? The two sides have taken divergent routes in achieving personal clarity. Is one right and one wrong? Is one absolute and the other misguided?


The respective positions have been hard-won in dealing with life situations as viewed from the depths of personal experience. The respective clarity gained is always personal clarity, relevant to the experience of a single individual in the flow of a single stream of consciousness, which is unique by definition. The one thing we know about each other is I am not you and you are not me. There is a gulf of experience between us. So what seems wise to me may seem stupid or immoral to you, and vice versa. Which is not only to be expected, but is perfectly O.K.


The challenge is not for one party to dominate the other by projecting its clarity outward and imposing its will on others by law or by force. No, the challenge is for both parties to get together and talk over coffee (or yak’s blood tea, whatever the beverage of choice). The truly interesting thing about us is how we come to clarity on the views that govern our lives and behaviors. That is the stuff about which books are written. Our stories are all different. Claiming that one book has it right and all others are wrong is absurd. We all need to stay open and keep talking, reading—living and learning.


Political smear campaigns attempt to heighten the contrast between candidates in the minds of the electorate. They make it appear that one side is righteous and the other weak and perverted. Fingering Barack Obama as an associate of known criminals and terrorists is such an obvious distortion of the facts (we are all within six degrees of connection to the worst of such people) that the claim backfired in reflecting poorly on the judgment of the accuser. Those who can’t think for themselves might be swayed, but most people, most of the time, are skilled in evaluating the worth of such accusations.


Too, most of us get so used to false or exaggerated advertising claims that we ignore them entirely, or regard them cynically as a form of entertainment. We can tell when someone is trying to manipulate us, whether boasting the virtues of a car or a candidate. We have no trouble spotting the contortions behind an ad pretending to make one thing perfectly clear. If it’s that clear, it’s probably a lie. One of the great joys of life is puncturing others’ false claims to clarity.


The most blatant ad I ever saw was a Disney short made in 1942, which won the 1943 Oscar for best animated cartoon. I was embarrassed by it’s heavy-handed propaganda even then when I was eleven years old. In the short, Donald Duck dreams of working a forty-eight-hour shift in a German munitions plant, to the accompaniment of Spike Jones’ rendition of “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” The film was meant to whip the public into a patriotic frenzy for the war effort. When Donald wakes from his dream, he hugs a replica of the Statue of Liberty.


A similar spirit pervaded the anti-communist hearings chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy starting in 1950. He claimed in a speech that communists ran a spy ring among employees of the State Department. He spent much of his life projecting his personally clear convictions onto the Truman administration, the Army, the entertainment industry, and college teachers throughout the U.S. Signing loyalty oaths became a condition of employment in many institutions at the time. McCarthy blasted accusations of communist sympathy as if with a shotgun, but his pellets always fell short of the mark. He did manage to whip up a general anti-communist fervor that ruined the careers of some he dubbed commie pinkos. The fear of communist sympathies and sympathizers persisted through the Cold War, finally dying out after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.


John B. Watson, first graduate of the psychology department set up by John Dewey at the University of Chicago, invented behaviorism, a field of psychology bent on showing that all animal and human behavior would become clear if looked at in terms of punishments and rewards. Behaviorists pushed that idea as far as it would go, and then some. I am pleased to have survived the heyday of behaviorism, and to have lived long enough to write a blog about human consciousness as viewed from the perspective of one mind in particular (namely, my own—the one which is me).


Watson’s convictions led him to publish his views on child rearing in 1928 (Psychological Care of Infant and Child, W.W. Norton). I give a few samples of his advice here as examples of the clarity of his thought:


Mothers just don’t know, when they kiss their children and pick them up and rock them, caress them and jiggle them upon their knee, that they are slowly building up a human being totally unable to cope with the world it must later live in. (Page 44.)


There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it. (Pages 81-82.)


In conclusion won’t you then remember when you are tempted to pet your child that mother love is a dangerous instrument? An instrument which may inflict a never healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness. (Page 87.)


This book had an appeal among those who respected academic research and opinion. Those, that is, likely to be academics themselves. Raising children as if they were lab rats may not have seemed outlandish to them at the time. Both my parents were academics, and one distinctive characteristic of my childhood was the shaking of hands. I saw my father hold my mother only once: when she slipped on a waxed floor and fell, he helped her up. Watson issued his book in 1928, the same year Anne Sexton was born. I was born four years later. Sylvia Plath was born 23 days after I was, to an academic family. I have often wondered about how we were raised as children in those heady days. Sexton and Plath were both poets. Both had unhappy lives and died by suicide—Plath by putting her head in a gas oven in 1963, Sexton by carbon monoxide poisoning in a closed garage in 1974.


Clarity is always something to wonder about. I think we all have a responsibility to be clear with ourselves about how we came to clarity in our personal convictions and experience. When it comes to imposing our hard-won clarity of vision on others, I think we should pause and ask ourselves if it might not be better to encourage those others to come to clarity on their own by the light of their personal consciousness and experience. When one person’s clarity becomes dogma for a group of others, we are left to wonder what those others might have discovered for themselves.


Happy Thanksgiving.



Reflection 27: Clarity

November 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

For me, the sound of Hancock County, Maine in June is the call of the hermit thrush. Cousin of the robin—who sings his heart out in the treetops—the hermit thrush carols close to the ground where he gleans insects in the duff beneath woods of spruce and fir. To hear its call in the near distance is to love the bird at once. I anticipate June for that reason, and dread the approach of August when I know the thrush will fall silent.


In the 1970s, my older brother took up the saxophone. He couldn’t commit to one instrument, so on vacation he would bring three—alto, tenor, baritone—to Maine. He usually arrived in early June and stayed through August. That is, he pretty much overlapped the hermit thrush season. So I would often be sitting still outside at dusk listening to an approaching thrush as it caroled its way nearer and nearer—and there would come this brassy blast of sound through the trees that sounded like I imagined a wounded albatross would sound, if there were any wounded albatrosses in Maine. Needless to say, the lone hermit could not compete with that noise and might as well have called it quits. But it kept gamely on, only to have every chorus drowned out by my tight-lipped brother blowing through his hollow tube. I was the one who gave up and went inside. In the morning we would have words, my brother and I. I would point out that the hermit thrush is indigenous to Maine while the saxophone is an import from Belgium. He would call me shithead, and that was that. I give him credit, though, for eventually building a modest concert pavilion on the far side of a ledge that somewhat muffled the sounds he emitted by the time they reached me. Still, I was so sensitized to the sounds he made that even that was not good enough. I wanted the thrush to emerge out of evening stillness without competition. We kept a wary distance from each other for some twenty-five years, while my brother and the thrush would wage duets at dusk while I fumed. He hasn’t come to Maine in recent years, so I have been left to enjoy the thrush doing its thing as often as I have been able to attend.


We rely on consciousness to do everything it can to lift meaningful sounds (sights, smells, tastes, textures) above competing inputs that have less or no meaning for us. It does this by heightening the contrast between signals and any noise against which they may play. The ratio of meaning to unmeaning (signal to noise) is a measure of the clarity with which we receive phenomena in awareness. Once the mind decides which voice it wants to listen to, the brain does its best to separate that one from the general din by doing what it can to suppress the others. Consciousness delivers an either-or, this-or-that kind of world. The outside world (which is really a mystery) did not get that way on its own.


Suppose for a moment that some people might prefer the voice of a saxophone to the note of a thrush. It might well be possible for them to hear the voice while entirely ignoring the note to the point they do not notice it at all. In my little story(above), the voice of the saxophone had the edge because it was so brassy and the thrush was so soft. My brain was unable to turn tables on my brother and bring out the thrush at the sax’s expense. I heard two competing signals, and could not stifle either one.


That kind of situation drives me to distraction. Cocktail parties are hell on Earth because I hear every voice in the room blended into a drone and cannot pick one or another to concentrate on. Even if someone right in front of me is speaking, her voice is lost in the din. That is a characteristic of my individual consciousness, and I have to put up with it. Which is why I avoid situations where people all talk at once. I prefer gatherings where one person speaks at a time.


I offer this blog as Exhibit A. Please note that there is only one voice, and that voice is mine. Again, this is not egotism but the only way I can know my own mind, which, in writing about consciousness from the inside, is essential. To write a book, I once took to an island on the Maine coast, where I lived solo for two-and-a-half years—just me and the likes of hermit thrushes, which was fine by me. I have been reflecting on consciousness for so long, it is second nature to me now. I welcome comments on these posts because I can respond to them in the relative calm of my apartment, one by one.


It has taken me a lifetime to learn how to manage my consciousness to get the most out of it. And I’m still at it. Through much of my life, I have been distracted by a busy world impinging on my senses, so have had a hard time concentrating on much of anything. Now I live by myself and can sit at my computer, explore my thoughts, and write. Any human voice within earshot distracts me, and so terminates that line of awareness. Even songs with words draw my attention. I prefer Mozart piano sonatas. And best of all, silence. It is no accident I am a secular Quaker and attend silent meetings on most weekends. I don’t go in order to worship, but more to rediscover who I am on that day in that situation. That respectful meditation punctuates my life, providing the clarity I need to enter the coming week (what metaphor shall I use?) . . . on an even keel.


The human cerebral cortex is a genius at finding order in chaos by carefully adjusting feedback from one neuron to another in order to maximize the clarity (signal to noise ratio) of excitation in any sensory modality. It does this by increasing the contrast between the signal attended to and any which compete with it. The brain does not process images, objects, or events received directly from the world. Rather, it takes them apart and processes their attributes—colors, contrasts, edges, contours, motions, elements of shapes, and so on—separately. From the retina inward, the world is dismantled into its components, processed in terms of basic characteristics, then reassembled in a way to maximize meaning and significance in the context of the situation that pertains at the time. Another moment, another situation, another meaningful reassembly.


Thus our brains work their way through the day. Not that we are conscious of the process. What we become aware of is the end product as informed by our expectations and desires of the moment. Which help sharpen the phenomena we do become aware of in light of our personal interests. What I see or hear is not necessarily the same as what you see or hear.


Picture a heronry of two hundred nests, with from three to five juvenile birds in each nest. Picture an adult heron flying in with fish in its gullet, emitting a one note call, graak, to alert its young so their digestive juices start to flow. When this happens, only the young in one nest respond. They perk up and look eagerly in the direction of the call. The rest carry on as before as if they heard nothing. Yet when either of their parents gives such a call, they make an appropriate response because they each receive that signal as a personal notification that dinner is about to be served.


Which is precisely what we do. Pick and chose between sensory signals, paying attention to any to which we ascribe meaning. Attenuating such signals, boosting them by treating all others as meaningless noise, we suppress those deemed irrelevant to our life situations. In the process creating a life world distinctly tailored to our personal needs, interests, and expectations.


When we are clear about something, we are clear in different ways because we all have different backlogs of life experience and gauge events differently in relation to the perspectives and meanings with which we address them. This often goes unnoticed because our respective ways of attaining clarity are internal matters not detectable from the outside. Until we make some sort of response differing from the ones our neighbors make, giving others a hint that the way we take the current situation may differ from the way they view it themselves.


In fact we do advertise the ways we seek clarity in many ways. By supporting one team or another, one political party, one side in a battle, one religious system, one party in court, even by demonstrating a preference for saxophones or hermit thrushes. Because of the way consciousness achieves clarity, in almost every instance we divide the world into two classes: those who are with us and those against. The recent presidential election is a good illustration of the process we undergo in achieving clarity on a national scale. We the people have made up our minds. It took the better part of two years, but we did it. We weren’t clear who we wanted to lead us at the beginning. But we eventually winnowed the candidates down to three, then two, and finally one. The outcome of that process is beyond doubt. Barack Obama will lead us as of January 20th, 2009.


The divide between supposedly red states and blue states is all in our minds because it stems from the processes through which our brains seek clarity in enabling us to act consciously and deliberately in life situations as we perceive them. Political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. We have them because we the people need help in coming to decisions within the framework of our democracy. In order for our minds to make meaningful choices, it is extremely helpful to engage in a process that narrows the field down to two alternatives. Consciousness thrives on clear choices because that is how the brain works in separating meaningful signals from a background of noise. The higher the ratio between the one and the other, the easier we find it to make up our minds.


Which is why we have true believers and infidels, good cops and bad, cowboys and Indians, Shiites and Sunnis, and an endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In the last case, there is no process by which those of either mindset can embrace the two as equal blocks or constituencies and so resolve their differences by one means of achieving clarity or another. The only thing that would allow such a resolution would be to structure a situation such that the two peoples have equal right to consideration by all concerned. But most minds are closed to that option from the start. The contest is over before it has a chance to begin. All that’s left is for each side to throw rocks or rockets at the other in deep-seated enmity as if one side were born wholly good and the other wholly evil. The difficulty of the situation is compounded by the scarcity of land and water in a region where too many people are struggling to survive on minimal resources.


The U.S. has just gone through the exercise of electing Barack Obama as president of its national plurality of peoples. All peoples, not just one group or another. That is a tremendous leap of consciousness into the future from a past in which such a thing was unimaginable. Blacks, Native Americans, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and other settlers have been together here for over 400 years. It took that long for a man of mixed ancestry to transcend his otherness in being elected to the presidency. He is now The Man, not just background noise. Imagine a Palestinian emerging as The Man in a union embracing both his people and Israelis. Until all sides can consciously imagine such a thing happening, it will not happen because the very idea will be suppressed as nonsense.


Imagine a state in which lovers of saxophones live in harmony with lovers of hermit thrushes. Is such a state possible. Yes, when the people of each persuasion can celebrate the underlying humanity of the other. And beyond embracing it, become consciously willing to defend that celebration to the death. Until then, consciousness renders one party less human than the other, and no clear accommodation is possible.












Reflection 26: Missing Photos

November 21, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Last spring I had a bout with the flu that sapped me during the whole month of March. I’ve been looking to get a flu shot this fall, but missed several chances because I was off doing other things, like having cataract surgery. I called the clinic and they said I could come by anytime except the lunch hour. I went this morning, filled out the required form, sat in the waiting room, where I had been told Wally would call for me. Ah, Wally, I had forgotten his name. He’d drawn blood from me several times in recent years. He came to the waiting room door and called for me. I hadn’t remembered what he looked like, but I sort of recognized him in that setting. He didn’t take me to his lab but to a small room I’d never been in, a room with bare walls. “Where are your photos?” I asked. Something about the situation reminded me he was an active photographer, and had his photos arranged all around the walls of the room where he’d drawn blood. Wally, his appearance, and his hobby had all slipped my mind. But suddenly they were at the forefront of my consciousness as if they’d been there all the time. Now I remembered studying each photo as I was waiting for him to draw blood the last time I’d visited the clinic. They’d been somewhere, that’s for sure, but not in my conscious awareness. “They’re in the lab,” he said. What was it that called them to mind? It wasn’t Wally himself, or the clinic. And it couldn’t have been the room because I’d never been there before. I know, it was those bare walls. They didn’t jibe with what I knew about Wally. So my question to him was based on an absence, something I expected at that moment, but wasn’t there.


Where had I stored Wally’s photos? I say now they were in the situational memory I had of being let into a small room by the photographer himself, even if I had forgotten his name. I know several things about Wally: he wears green scrubs, is solidly built, dark, works as a phlebotomist, and loves to take pictures. I say I know these things, but not like I know 7 x 8 = 56 or Albany is the capital of New York. Those are rote memories. And they aren’t spurred by strong feelings such as those associated with my fear of high places (see Reflection 16: Fight or Flight). There’s nothing rote about my memory of Wally. It has more to do with the circumstances under which we meet—as seen from my point of view. It seems to take several things happening at once to bring up that memory. I have to be in the clinic, getting blood drawn or a flu shot, being led into a small room where I am to sit in a chair. I expect to see photos on the wall. If I don’t see them, something’s wrong.


Thinking about Wally and the missing photos, two other memories crowd into my mind. Perhaps they’re stored in the same cubby in my brain. The first dates from almost thirty years ago:


I’m in the kitchen washing dishes. It’s dark outside, so there’s nothing to see out the window. I turn on the radio. An old song comes on which I vaguely remember. Listening to it, I discover I like the tune and hum along with it as I scrub pots. The stove is to my right, dining table to my left. The song ends. I finish the dishes. I don’t recall what happens next. The next night I wash dishes again, without the radio. A song runs through my head, the one I had heard the night before and not thought of since. But there it is, and I start humming along. An absence summoned by a similar situation.


Washing dishes is different from getting a flu shot, but the same kind of recall seems to be involved. Something about standing at the sink, facing a dark window. Some aspect of that situation summoned that one song out of nowhere. My memory for songs is terrible. I have no idea now what tune that might have been. But the occasion caught my attention, and it is that occasion that I remember—washing dishes in a specific place after dinner. It was unconsciously recalling the song a day later that made it notable. Could there be any survival advantage in storing such trivia? It is the moment that has meaning for me now, what I was doing joined to where I was at the time? For thirty years that has lodged in my brain, to be dragged to the surface when I think about getting a shot from Wally the photographer-phlebotomist. No, when an absence of photos tells me something is wrong with this situation. Two memories from different eras in my life brought together as if they had something in common. An absence, not a presence.


Then there’s that rock on the Hadlock Brook Trail in Acadia National Park:


It’s an ordinary glacial erratic boulder, granite, some two-and-a-half to three feet high. Every time I hike the Hadlock Brook Trail I have the same thought upon seeing that rock on a steep section of the upper reaches of the trail as it nears the south ridge of Sargent Mountain. I remember the trail lunch my partner Carole and I had there back in 1994 or 1995 when we looked out over the trees and watched ravens through binoculars as they gathered on the ridge to the west. I don’t remember what we ate, or were wearing. I do remember Carole was with me, we ate something which we laid out on the rock. I remember the binoculars, treetops, ravens. The sun was shining. What calls that occasion to mind is the particular rock in that location along the trail. I don’t think of it while hiking lower down the trail, but the steepness of that stretch of ledge, and the sight of that rock bring it to mind as if it were yesterday. There’s an absence here, too. On most hikes, Carole isn’t with me, and there are no ravens—and no lunch. That’s what consciousness brings to mind when I come across that boulder on the trail.


Place has a lot to do with it. And what I am doing there. And these memories share something else in common: the sharp focus of my attention. In all three I am interested in and excited by something. The memories seem to be about something sensory in nature—Wally’s photos, recalling the song, seeing ravens through binoculars. I am engaged in doing something I like. And the occasion is underwritten by a feeling of positive engagement in that place. There is no fear, no threat, no danger here. These memories are about feeling good when something is going on in that particular place. All are low key.


And too, there is that absence of something that should be there but isn’t. Is that enough of a jab to spur recall of three so disparate memories? If so, yearning, even unconscious yearning, is powerful magic. It’s not the same now as it was. Or perhaps it is a matter of salience, something is new in this scene. Something is out-standing, it stands out in not being where it should be.


These smatterings from my autobiographical memory reveal details of my day-to-day life world that connect to other details in similar places on other occasions. This is the fabric of my life, the stuff of reminiscences when I get together with family and friends who share similar details in their own autobiographies. I offer them in this blog, not because anyone might be interested, but because of what they say about conscious inner life. Like a wasp nest, consciousness is supported by a great many cells that stand alone, but are joined to others similar to themselves, giving granularity and structure to the whole. There’s this, and this, and this. None of it essential in itself, but vital to the overall life world nonetheless.


Particularly important is what’s missing. What’s changed. Yes, that feels right. We take it for granted things will be the same, and when they aren’t, we notice.


These examples suggest that life worlds are made of ten-thousand stitches, each woven one at a time, and subject to recall under circumstances similar to those when it was laid down—but with a difference. Vive la différence! says consciousness. Sometimes, as with a missing tooth, what’s missing is as salient as what’s still in place. Here is subtraction, not addition. Significance is in the minus sign, not the plus sign (see Reflection 22: Relationships).


Consciousness is not all Sturm und Drang (storm and stress). It has its gentle undercurrents, too. Which may have geographical significance, but, as in these cases, seem to be more situational in nature, being called to mind by variations in similar circumstances more than revisiting particular places. The conjunction of these three episodes today suggests to me that consciousness is invested in the mechanisms of recall itself as much as in the particulars of what is recalled. Above all it is interested in process, in events that change over time, be the span one day or many years.



Reflection 25: Lost World

November 19, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

In my last post (Reflection 24: Population), I tried to show how serious our situation is now that our cultural disorientation has become contagious and is affecting others around the globe, causing people everywhere to lose their bearings. Earth can no longer support our activities at the level we desire. We are too many for the planet to bear, too needy, too long-lived, and dwell at too great a remove from Earth’s natural systems. As a result, not only our economy and culture are in collapse, but Earth itself is becoming unstable, its climate and weather conditions exceeding their normal ranges. We haven’t seen such disruptions since the drought and depression of the 1930s.


Many blame the erosion of governmental oversight of the economy during the four most recent U.S. administrations for the current catastrophe. Always looking for root causes, I credit the cultural (it’s more than just economic) collapse to a widespread failure of consciousness, starting in America, spreading around the world. In essence, we are gaming the Earth, risking everything for the sake of personal gain. This is a failure of judgment. Some risks are too great to contemplate. Yet we wager all on going against our best judgment. We are told that there is no free lunch. But secretly we bet that somewhere there is, and we go after that lunch, no matter what. That what turns out to be utter disorientation. Now, we don’t know which way to turn to save ourselves.


Too many of us are living beyond our means, going into debt, using other people’s money to leverage our fortunes, sacking the Earth for personal gain. Periodic economic collapse has been trying to warn us for decades, but we keep looking for other sources of exorbitant wealth which will flow to us without tasking us overmuch—and in ten years the system collapses all over again. The common element in every decade is our unquenchable desire to “get ahead,” which always drops us off far short of our selfish desires. The battleground is neither Wall nor Main Street as commonly claimed, but the road to riches that runs through our heads where consciousness, such as it is, maintains its day-to-day operations.


In “The Village,” a chapter in Walden comprising but three paragraphs (long ones at that), Thoreau speaks to the issue of losing one’s way in the woods, and more generally, getting lost and disoriented. I think that passage carries a message much needed by those looking for ways out of our current predicament.


It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. Often in a storm, even by day, one will come out upon a well-known road and yet find it impossible to tell which way leads to the village. Though he knows that he has travelled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it, but it is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia. By night, of course, the perplexity is infinitely greater. In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and head-lands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round,—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.


We are surely so turned around now that we are in sore need of learning the points of compass again. Not just the economic compass, but the ecological compass that gives us our bearings on this living planet we call Earth. Without such bearings we are under the impression we can steer the planet by ourselves. That way nature won’t get out of hand, and we can run our affairs however we wish. Except every time we give in to that conceit, we run afoul of Earth’s displeasure and wash up on some uncharted ledge.


Which, Thoreau points out, may be a calamity, but can also be seen as an opportunity for getting our bearings again. As a chance to make a new start rather than an end to familiar life worlds from the past. But only if we become fully conscious “of where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” If we exclude these from awareness, then we are just as lost as before, and are sure to repeat our mistakes time and again.


This time around, I have not heard or read one word written by anyone but myself about this particular collapse being caused by a widespread failure of human consciousness. Blame is widely cast about, many are implicated, but what has gone wrong is never clearly identified. Where some have fallen, others will rise up and carry on as before. With the result we are none the wiser and are sure to go the same route in coming years. Steering by the same sorry compass.


Rather than doling out billions of dollars to financial institutions to save their dignity, our government would do better to spur examination of the nation’s collective consciousness, the awareness (or lack thereof) that led us into this catastrophe. All along we were going for broke, and that is precisely where we ended up. The entire nation was risking its stake in hopes of bettering its situation—eyes solely on the promise, not the facts—and lost.


Leery of investing in savings and loans, dot-com startups, foreign stocks after the Asian collapse, and the too-good-to-be-true Enrons of the world, America put its hopes and money in real estate which, according to the brochure, always increased in value no matter what and never, never went down. Which is like putting your savings into a perpetual-motion machine. Or new wine into old bottles. Yet we’ve done it again. And now we find the machine doesn’t run, the bottles burst, and wine runs all over the carpet.


What can we learn from all this? More importantly, do we want to learn anything? Or shall we keep to our muddled strategy of hoping against hope, and so wander deeper into the woods more lost than before? I recommend a good dose of Thoreau at this point (see above). Bailing out the old system won’t do the trick. Having lost that world, we’ve got to find a better one. Rather, find ourselves anew. Or find our same old selves in a new system.


What kind of system might that be? We could do worse than seek internal guidance from consciousness itself, as if we had an owner’s manual or could press the Help button. What would consciousness reveal to us that we’ve overlooked before?


Consciousness operates on a complex balance between positive and negative feedback within the brain itself meant to sharpen contours and outlines, so rendering the clearest estimate of what it is dealing with. Which is never so-called reality itself, but is its best guess of what our life situation might be, subject to revision.


The interacting parts or modules of consciousness include: wakefulness, attention, feelings, motivation, sensory phenomena, body perception, concepts, episodic or autobiographical memories, working memory to keep relevant details on call as needed, judgment, thought, language and associated gestures, the ability to evaluate and prioritize, expectancy, planning for action, action itself, and refinement of action.


By listing these aspects of consciousness I do not mean to imply we use them all or use them well. These are some of the parts available to us. Our challenge is to integrate them and use them in framing a response to our present situation, which is where we have gone off the tracks, because our educational system does not generally include such skills in its curriculum.


Learning through trial and error, most of us wing it most of the time. Which is extremely arduous and labor intensive because we make the fundamental error of believing our consciousness opens onto the “real world,” when in fact the only sensory phenomena we have to deal with are concocted from the few scraps of sensory feedback available to us at the moment, and largely selected, shaped, and assembled as our brains see fit according to our habitual ways and customs.


We learn through successive approximations of what’s happening, and if we stick with it closely enough, long enough, we can get pretty good at sizing up the relevant details of a life situation. Which lets us apply our best judgment in evaluating that situation, and suiting our actions to it as appropriate to the demands of the occasion as we understand it, as well as to our personal motives and interests.


Recovering our orientation after a calamity is not as simple as consulting a compass. Do we trust anyone’s compass but our own? How do we know if the one we have is accurate? We need to calibrate our consciousness through a series of trials, preferably at periodic intervals throughout life. Right now, in the current situation, whose guidance can we rely on? The so-called experts appear to have brought the collapse on through their own activities and beliefs. It is doubtful any experts survive unscarred. All were blindsided because focused on too small a sample of what was going on. They saw only what they wanted to see. The collapse crept up in the shadows, unobserved.


To avoid getting out beyond our depth, our current attitude should be: Stop me before I invest again. Before I wager again. Sign a contract again. Before I go into debt again and cannot pay what I owe. All of which are matters of judgment requiring a good deal of practical experience. We can’t afford to commit ourselves too early in the game, before really understanding which rules apply in this particular situation.


All of us are saddened to have gotten into this mess. And wiser in vowing not to repeat our mistakes. The challenge now is to understand our conscious awareness so we can educate ourselves to avoid making similar blunders in years ahead.


And by the way, saying consciousness is the ultimate cause of this disaster doesn’t get anyone off the hook. “My consciousness made me do it,” just doesn’t wash. In any given situation, the self looks on from its perspective and makes what it can of passing events. The self is the judge and decision-maker, the executive of consciousness. That’s where the buck stops every time.


Which is what this blog is about. Learning to use our mental gifts wisely so we don’t get mired in the swamp of unawareness, lost in the deep woods of despair, or abandoned on the shoal waters of greed. This crisis, as I have said, is a crisis of human consciousness. Many of us aren’t very good at managing our own affairs. Which, ultimately, are Earth affairs because in living as we do, our lifestyles impact the Earth. It wouldn’t matter so much if we were butterflies, but being the top predator on the planet, it matters a lot.


In the blogosphere you have little idea who’s hitting on your posts unless they declare themselves. Even then you don’t know who they are. So I post neither for Wall Street nor Main Street but for us all as Earthlings, inhabitants of the one planet in the universe where we claim to have encountered conscious life.


My aim is to use my own experience of consciousness as a vehicle of exploration, and to share what I discover with those who might be interested. My hope is that we can all better understand and appreciate the wits we have been given, and so avoid getting as lost as we are now, as often as we have gotten turned around in days past.



Reflection 24: Population

November 17, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

At the moment I start to write this blog, the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,025,062 (POPClock, U.S. Bureau of Standards, Population Division, 3:57 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, November 10, 2008).


The world population reached some 300 million in Y0K (that’s a zero representing the millennial turn from B.C. to A.D.), reached its first billion about 1830 or earlier, its second billion in 1930, third in 1960, fourth in 1974, fifth in 1987, sixth in 1999, and is predicted to hit its seventh billion by 2017.


What makes these numbers so scary to me is, 1) the human population has more than tripled since I was born, 2) in my lifetime per-capita material consumption in the U.S. has shot up by a factor of six, 3) average life expectancy in the U.S. has stretched from 60 to 80 years over the same span, and 4) we have achieved all this at the expense of the Earth. I am mixing apples and oranges here, but only to make the point that during my brief tenure on Earth there are vastly greater numbers of us living much longer and consuming far more than our human ancestors did from the origin of our species to the 1930s.


We know all this. We also know that this horde of hungry hominids (namely, us) is eating away the habitats that give it a homeland on planet Earth. We are depleting the very species and ecosystems we depend on for life support. The forests, wetlands, grasslands, waterways, estuaries, oceans. We are changing the climate, the acidity of the seas, storm frequency and intensity—there are few aspects of our planet we haven’t impacted and destabilized to our peril.


Yet we do little about it. Red lights are flashing, sirens wailing, klaxons honking, flares igniting, bulletins alerting, headlines glaring, seas rising, bluffs eroding—and it’s all business as usual with us hominid types and our lifestyles that are fast turning into deathstyles.


Consciousness is given us so we can make appropriate responses to unprecedented life situations. So why aren’t we doing anything? Is it because we aren’t really conscious of what’s happening? By way of a contrasting example, I offer the time in Nespelum, Washington, when I went into the bushes to urinate, met a rattlesnake crossing the path in front of me, turned, walked away, and I no longer had to go. I was fully conscious and as a result clamped my bladder tight for over an hour. That’s consciousness leading to appropriate action.


But now we act like we’re in a deep sleep or coma: Let them take care of it, whoever they are. I didn’t do it. Besides, I can’t fix it. So individually and collectively we do nothing. Or worse than nothing, we keep multiplying, consuming, growing older and older, depleting the Earth. Every day we wake up and the problem is worse. In the past twelve years, more than a billion more people have been born than died. Consumers have rampaged through markets and malls, going deeply into debt, having their way with the Earth. And still we do nothing.


What’s wrong with our consciousness? With our exploring our options? With our prioritizing? With our acting and following-through? With our using our know-how and experience to get us out of this fix?


Like, we don’t have to live our full span of years, splurging the bulk of our life-long medical expenditures on a terminal spree during our last six months of life. Living for a shorter time has the same effect as cutting the population. We consume less, and yet enjoy ourselves more because we are in better health. Check that: no heroic efforts to gain a few extra months of “life” hooked up to expensive machines. No, not even if the medical establishment entices us (after all, they make a killing on forlorn hopes and end-of-life theatrics). Not even if our loved ones don’t want to let go.


A few years ago, my beloved cousin fell and injured her hand. Which got infected. Sending a clot to her heart, then on to her kidneys. Her lungs were already kaput from a fifty-year career of smoking to keep herself thin. Now it was quadruple bypass surgery, dialysis to detoxify herself, lying in bed for a year because standing and walking were too much effort. She and her daughters believed they could will her kidneys to heal themselves. But it didn’t pan out. After a year with no lifestyle at all she died, leaving a portfolio of unpaid hospital bills as her legacy. Is that how we want our loved ones to go, with a stifled (and costly) whimper, not a bang?


Conservation is the key to squandering fewer of Earth’s natural “resources.” I mean using fewer resources, not developing alternative technologies to sustain us at the same level of consumption. We can contribute to the resolution of our predicament by restraining our appetites, reusing what we do take, recycling, sharing, and weaning ourselves from dependence on petroleum-guzzling machinery by slowing down and relying more on our own labor. Think what that would do for our epidemic of obesity.


But then there’s the trail of toxic pollution we dribble behind us as we consume our merry way through life. Water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, pet waste, farm waste, industrial waste, military waste. We keep facing ahead so we can’t see the puddles swamping our footprints. The wasted soils and aquifers. Or the dead zones downstream.


Nothing new here. We know all this. But “knowing” a fact in the abstract is not the same as experiencing it in full frontal awareness. There’s a great pit opening at our feet, and we pretend it’s not there. I don’t see anything. Me neither. Let’s keep our eyes closed and run as fast as we can.


When you look straight at something and don’t see it, it’s called denial. Or suppression. Or blindness. When you look straight at something, see it, and don’t act appropriately, it’s called ignorance. Or stupidity. Either way, it bodes ill for survival. We have seen the damage a C-minus president can do once in high office by elevating party loyalty and secrecy above wisdom and justice. We put him there, and kept him there, so we got the president we deserved. He’s slipping out the door now, but we’re still here, doing our thing. Hoping Obama’s the man to make the bad dream go away. Will we do our part when he asks us to? Remains to be seen.


Consciousness, where art thou when we need you? As always, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Only our collective consciousness can heal Earth, its peoples, and our nation—along with our personal judgment, motivation, and ultimately our actions.


So what do we do now? As I see it, we’ve been on cruise control for too long. It’s become a habit with us. But we’ve come to a village and have to slow down—rethink our life situation. The trick to effective use of consciousness is to see it as a kind of time machine. The meanings we put on events all come from concepts and experiences laid down in the past. The sensory phenomena of today are the face of the present. What we’ve been doing is mapping past meanings onto present images, treating the now as an extension of the way things used to be. But that isn’t good enough because our life situation has changed. There are too many of us now, living too high on the hog, outlasting our dreams, abusing the Earth.


The question is, where do we find guidance to take us into the future? That’s where imagination comes in, providing a vision of the way things might turn out if we did things differently from before. Like slowing down when we drive through a village because of the risk of hitting a child chasing a ball into the street. If we don’t see the child behind the car, we have to imagine her there and drive accordingly. That vigilance is part of consciousness, too.


Let me give an example. I once snowshoed up Cadillac Mountain Road in Acadia the day after a big snowstorm. It was Saturday, and all the snowmobilers were out. That road is one blind curve after another. What I noticed was the difference between how solo riders took those curves compared to riders with their ladies sitting behind them. The young Turks all commandeered the center of the road and sped around the turns with no thought that unseen riders might be coming the other way. Those with ladies slowed, kept to the right, and watched for coming traffic they couldn’t yet see.


When judgment selects which of our options for action to support, it considers the likely consequences of each option and goes for the one with the highest probability of getting us where we want to go. That is, all things considered, consciousness recommends actions for their future effects, not their adherence to outmoded traditions, habits, or sentiments. When old ways no longer prove effective, consciousness takes a fresh look at novel behaviors.


Novelty is our key to appropriate action that will bring in the world of the future. In Maine, everybody stops at yard sales to scan the tables for good stuff, cheap. Not necessarily brand-new stuff, but stuff new to us. Shopping sprees are satisfying because they renew the human spirit with colorful, bright, shiny stuff. Think of the possibilities opening out of a box of new Legos in red, white, and blue. Dinosaurs. Skyscrapers. Robots. With enough of these building blocks, you can make anything you want.


So applying consciousness as a time machine for building a new future, we have to reconsider the meaning of our growing population, our level of consumption, our life expectancy, and our relation to the Earth. Old ways have gotten us where we find ourselves today. We have to learn to look around the curve ahead to see what may be coming at us. No more backing lost causes or forlorn hopes (think bundled mortgages). We have to fit ourselves more appropriately to the now situation rather than blindly keep on as we’ve gone before. I’m talking about finding novel ways of doing and living. About being ourselves differently—and loving it because it accords with our expanded awareness.


Throughout the industrial era, buying stuff has kept the global economy going year after year. Now we have to see such “stuff” as gifts from an Earth that can give only so much on a sustainable basis. Taking more than Earth can afford leads to collapse of natural systems which govern themselves. We see that now. Outdoing ourselves year after year in turning wealth into goods, we’ve managed to undo the source that keeps us alive. There are simply too many of us, living too long, consuming too much stuff, giving too little attention to where our wealth comes from.


Our goal now is to provide a truly sustainable situation for every person on Earth, along with each of Earth’s other plant and animal inhabitants. Our planet (we belong to it, not it to us) has a limited capacity to tolerate and support us. Collectively spending beyond our means has bankrupted the planet, our ultimate repository of wealth. The debt we owe is not to banks but Earth itself.


How many of us can live sustainably on Earth, at what level of consumption, for how many years, with what attitude toward our planetary host and benefactor? We must wrap our consciousness around these questions and come up with answers in short order. That is the challenge to which we were born, and cannot escape.


After writing for a spell, going to the post office and the store, after cooking dinner, after eating, after reading and listening to the news, as I finish this blog at 9:36 p.m., the world population of humans is figured to be 6,736,076,770.


That’s 51,708 more mouths for Earth to feed than when I sat down to write five hours and thirty-nine minutes ago—over 152 added every minute. T i m e   i s  w a s t i n g   a w a y. If we forgot to set the alarm, let this be it. If we are the problem, let us be the solution as well. Sleepers AWAKE!



(Copyright © 2008)

Relationships are anything but static. In fact change often keeps them going. They are not meant to remain forever the same. Consciousness thrives on novelty and adventure. Sameness puts us to sleep. We are most alive when dealing with situations that interest us because we are invested in them. Without interest—z z z z z z z. We are all interested in love. Here’s what I wrote on that topic in my write-up of the same hike I dealt with in my last blog, (Reflection 22: Relationships):


Love is one of the greatest mysteries in any relationship. We know people become attracted to each other in such a way that acquaintance blossoms into friendship and, when desire conquers fear, into the more intimate stages of love. We do not know what starts the progression, or sustains its development. Why these two people out of millions? Why now? Why here? We come up with star-[matched] love and fatal attractions, but those are metaphors, not explanations. My hunch is that place draws people together. Lovers are active expression of their place on Earth. They stand somewhere, rising from ancient roots, living proof that their lineage is successful, and they are ready to commit themselves to the continuation of their lines into the future. Love flows not from the heart but from the Earth. From the springs of beauty, health, promise, and success. When two people come together as particular expressions of Earth’s bounty and ongoing creativity, they lay the foundation of the future, not just for themselves or their habitats, but for the next stage in the unfolding of the great universal adventure. Without the dimension of place, couples represent only themselves as motes entangled in air. The word “casual,” as in casual encounters, casual conversation, and casual sex, hints at the missing element of commitment to place. If this commitment is not part of a relationship, the coming together of two people is an accident of two desires rubbing against each other for fleeting gratification. Partners who endure represent more than themselves. They are Earth embracing Earth, place embracing place, life embracing life.


Each of us becomes an agent for our placement in life. We let our genes do the talking. Our life worlds, then, open onto scenes or situations peopled by other agents, objects, props, scenery—all viewed from our perspective, all seen in relationship one to another. This is the phenomenal world which constitutes our consciousness moment by moment as such situations change and develop into stories or, when conceptualized, scenarios. All consciousness emerges from the perspective of the self, is situational in nature, and flows along like a river or storyline. We are eager to find out—and to live—what happens next as the situation unfolds in awareness.


Through language, we give voice to situations as we experience them from our points of view. Prepositions, by definition, are relational: from, to, in, on, by, over, through, across, under, near, and so on. Conjunctions are relational: and, for, or, both, either, before, until, while. Subjects or agents acting on other agents or objects are demonstrably relational through verbs depicting specific actions: hit, take, move, cry, tell, hold, share. Adverbs modify the description of such actions: slowly, carelessly, deliberately, repeatedly, relentlessly, lovingly. Even conceptual nouns are situational in being evoked by particular sensory phenomena as being relevant to a situation unfolding in consciousness. Their reference is not to the outside world or to memory itself, but to the situation the speaker/writer actively holds in awareness because it interests her and arouses her feelings and attention at the moment.


As that moment of attention leads on to another, the situation develops, and consciousness follows along, eager to see what happens next. The motivated self or point of view brings up a situation in consciousness, which soon changes into a different situation, and then evolves into a situation with a history heading in a certain direction—thus becoming a story (or joke, episode, paragraph, song, opera, painting, and so on).


Each of the postings I include in this blog is a reflection of my state of consciousness as I piece it together at my computer. I set Reflection 20: Nothing on My Mind to post at 6:00 a.m., Friday, November 7. The night before, I woke in the middle of the night regretting two words I had added at the last minute. I felt they opened up side channels which distracted from the flow of the piece. I got up at 6:00 and deleted those two words. Reading that reflection through, I find it flows in fourteen paragraphs like a rushing river through, more-or-less in order:


  • cargo cults
  • shepherds watching their flocks at night
  • progression of the seasons
  • rural activities dependent on seasonal floods
  • uses of the calendar
  • angel messengers in the heavens
  • removal of social authority to urban areas
  • the idea of supreme beings
  • outer limits of concept formation
  • emptiness of absolute concepts
  • consequences of monotheism
  • the hollowness of supremacy, all leading to
  • the powerful abusing the consciousness of the weak.


That’s quite a story. All told from my perspective on a natural situation evolving over time into a modern cultural situation with a long and complicated history in human consciousness. Each generation lives only one episode, so cannot fully grasp the big picture. But if we seek them out, we can retrieve many of the separate episodes and piece them together. Which is what I tried to do in Reflection 20, giving not just the current state of affairs, but also the key stages of its evolution as seen from the point of view of my state of consciousness when I wrote that blog (which, if I live long enough, is apt to go through additional stages in years ahead).


Consciousness is all about evolving relationships in evolving situations as experienced from an ever evolving point of view. There are no absolutes in consciousness. Everything is seen in relation to everything else. Like the juggler, we hoist our set of Indian clubs (or hacky sacks) on our own and keep them flying until we die. There’s my set, your set, your mother’s set, your father’s, your children’s sets, and on and on. We do our best to keep them flying. Sometimes we drop a few, or all of them. We pick them up and start again as best we can. When we tire, we toss a few and keep going until the end.


Such is the challenge of consciousness. We have to work at it. All the time. And try to keep abreast of the situations we find ourselves in. Now it’s personal relationships, children, global warming, economic collapse, fuel costs, loss of jobs, hard times, and all the rest. Here we are, each living our own story, our evolving life, doing the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed.


This is the kind of situation consciousness has evolved to help us deal with. Few if any saw it coming. But now it’s here, and tomorrow will evolve into a new situation. Novelty is at the core of human awareness. Now our job is to apply our judgment to the options before us, prioritize those options, work as closely as we can with our partners in similar situations, hoist our clubs and keep going. Every generation has its time to shine. This is ours.





Reflection 22: Relationships

November 12, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

On a hike I made on August 16, 1996, I got into relationships. That is, relationships got into me. I met eight groups of hikers along the loop I made on Western Mountain in Acadia National Park. All but one were carrying on lively conversations. The silent exception was a man carrying a toddler papoose-style on his back. The rest were all talking, talking, their tongues working as hard as their legs. I heard them coming along the trail, I heard them going.


What is the difference between hiking in a group and hiking solo? I asked that question then, and—after writing Reflection 21 about each of our consciousnesses going it alone—I ask it more generally today. What is the difference between being alone and being in relationship with another who is also going it alone? How can two atoms in the universe link up and share a higher order of consciousness which transcends their isolation? This is how I eased into that topic in 1996:


Unique events and singularities are almost beyond comprehension. There is nothing we can compare them to. We think in terms of classes of things, categories, repeatable events. A class of one is no class at all. It is something waiting to be grouped with something else—to be made plural, coupled, included as part of a whole. Nothing exists by itself. Relationship is all. All is relationship. Plato labored over the problem of the one and the many, the difference between one thing and more than one. Here is a thing all by itself; it is what it is. Put it with another thing, it becomes party to a relationship, which is something else again. No longer an independent whole by itself, its nature now depends on its connectedness to something beyond itself. Man and wife. Mother and child. Teacher and student. Labor and management.


When singular items become joined, there is a tradeoff from a state of differentiation to one of integration. From being alone to being together. Specific detail is sacrificed for a more general state of unity. When two individuals become linked in their minds as a couple, they exist in a wholly different space than they occupied previously. They may look much the same, talk the same, walk the same, but they do so in companionship with another looker, talker, walker. And this change is not just a matter of appearances. Both parties are changed on the inside so that they actually look upon their respective worlds in new ways. Their consciousness becomes energized, their hormones surge, their identities expand to include another being as an essential part of themselves. In writing up my hike twelve years ago, I said:


In school we learn that 1 + 1 = 2, but that simple formula speaks a mystery the greatest minds do not understand. There is a distance and a tension between individual things that must be included in the notion of plurality. A couple exists in relationship. The relationship is what makes it a couple. Yet the relationship is not part of either one by itself. It is something else. The mystical plus sign is everything. That is where the magic is hidden.

Language, love, and beauty live in the plus sign, the space between partners in relationship, and between pluralities. The plus sign makes room for science, religion, government, and art, which are not disciplines in themselves so much as systems of relationship within society. The plus sign gives ideas a place to grow.


Not only ideas but babies, families, communities, tribes, and nations grow in that plus sign. Clearly, we have evolved as a species to join together in common purpose with others we invite to share our personal space. As hydrogen ions are born to share their being with other ions to form atoms and molecules, we are born with not just a potential but a proclivity for interacting with others who are born with a complementary drive.


In partnering, we fulfill—not the other—but ourselves. Both the urge and the satisfaction to which it leads are parts of our personal makeup. That way we preserve our integrity. Our plus sign fulfills itself. If we give from the heart, in the very same act we are expanded in kind. Which sounds like New Age gibberish, but is how the social dimension of consciousness works. We may feel good about having found our partner, but, too, we approve of ourselves in the relationship we have established. We are fully ourselves the whole time. That way, we do not give ourselves away, and so do not feel diminished. As I wrote in my trail book:


The wonder of hiking with a companion is that both people can enrich their relationship by being together in similar landscapes at the same time. Letting the landscape be the plus sign that unites them, couples can grow in new ways in new places, sharing new experiences, letting their relationship grow beyond what it was before they set out. One of the secrets of sustaining a relationship is to let it grow in new ways. This takes trust that the new ways will not threaten what has been attained, but will add new dimensions to it. . . .

          For people hiking in groups, being there is the secret. Being together in relationship as who they are, where they are. Not as who they were somewhere else; who they are, together, here, right now. One of the plus signs, the elements of relationship, is the location where the relationship comes into being. Relationships don’t exist in a vacuum; they are situated where the participants are as they relate to one another. The setting is part of the relationship. Not in an incidental way, but fundamentally and substantially. Location shapes what happens, becoming part of events as each participant and witness experiences them.


Events express the landscapes where they enter into consciousness. People become aware of their surroundings and what I now call their situations, so becoming partners with trees, plants, birds, water, sky, and other natural elements. The “where” is more than just a place on a map, it is a place to be and to live—a habitat. An address in the universe where people can reach out and be touched. The very situations that shape our personal consciousness at particular moments—those same circumstances suggest ways of being together with others in similar situations.


Though our particular edition of consciousness is ours alone (see Reflection 21), we need not feel locked in solitary confinement. The way out is also included in that same consciousness. We discover such openings once we take responsibility for being who we are as individuals and become comfortable with that individuality as our greatest asset. Then the way to offer ourselves in partnership with others opens before us, as the road to the Emerald City opened before Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. We gather courage, heart, and intelligence together—and off we go.



Reflection 21: Mind to Mind

November 10, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Do we all live in the same world? Or, put differently: Does anybody live in my world besides me?


I have evidence suggesting my two eyes live in different worlds, so even “I” don’t live in one world. Used to be, when I looked through my left eye (the good one), the scene before me was brighter than when I looked through my right eye (which I never thought of as bad, even though it rendered everything darker and greener). Having had the cataract in my right eye removed two weeks ago, I now find the vision in that eye much brighter, and the vision in my left eye to be green and comparatively dim.


So the worlds rendered by my two eyes are not the same. Just as the worlds rendered by my right and left hands are not the same. I carry buckets, open jars, bail boats with my left hand; I write with my right hand. The muscles and sensory apparatus on the two sides of my body are not symmetrical, as if each side lived in its own world. Which, as far as I know, and operationally, is true.


Those with cataracts see the world differently than those without. Which is also true of the colorblind and those with vision impairments of any kind. Think of veterans with amputated arms and/or legs. Even with high-tech prostheses, they may still receive sensations as if relayed from the missing part, as in the phantom limb effect. The leg is missing, but at the same time seems to be there. It is hard to imagine the worlds of the wounded, and hard for the wounded to imagine the worlds of the whole. Without doubt, their life worlds are specific to their conditions. As are the life worlds of those with Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries, unusual genetic make-ups, and all the other conditions that vary person-to-person, causing us to differ at the core of our being. To adopt unique perspectives. And, yes, projected outward, to live in life worlds of our own.


Even if apparently whole and sound, each of us—because of our genetic make-up, rearing, education, training, and life experience—is not only distinct but unique. On the inside as well as the outside. Not only physically, but perceptually and conceptually. So from Stephen Hawking to Mohammed Ali, Helen Keller to Hillary Clinton—we live different lives in different life worlds. My body is not your body. If I had your body, I’d be you. Thinking your thoughts, looking through your eyes.


Where is the real world scientists purport to study? Not out there waiting for them, ever the same, but in their heads as their methods and traditions have fashioned it over the years. The “real world” is a statistical concoction made by a great number of observers over time. That world smoothes out the differences between observers—the personal equations—by resorting to mathematical conceptualizations that make particularities and irregularities vanish, leaving only such vague generalities as survive the process of thinking about the world while not actually living in it. Scientists go home to dinner like the rest of us, leaving their mental worlds at the lab.


Which is why scientists have such a devilish time telling the rest of us what it is, exactly, that they do. Nothing is more difficult than translating the details of one world into perceptual language that others can understand. Like the truck driver without his truck, like the pilot without his airplane, the MRI technician without her machine cannot exist. They all depend on the perspective their apparatus gives them to be who they are. Which is no different from those of us who depend on our unique sensory equipment to be who we are in the life worlds we have fashioned for ourselves.


Scientists keep trying to reduce the world to its essential equations and numbers, when the world itself exists beyond such realms as mathematics and physics. The world is the world, unknown and mysterious. The mathematical formulations scientists come up with say more about themselves and the positivistic assumptions they started out with than about the world they seek to describe. In every case, the world is what we make it out to be. We, the assorted perceivers and thinkers of the world, fashion our respective worlds with our personal perspectives at the core, building worlds around our experience, not the other way around. When we are gone, the world will go on without us—without numbers, words, concepts, which belong to us, not the world.


Going blind, we ask for more light. Becoming deaf, we tell others to speak louder. Breathing oxygen from a green bottle, we have windows opened to let in more air. Consciousness factors out its own workings as if it gave upon a world incorporating such failings on its own without us. If we have a million dollars in the bank, we sincerely believe that sum is not sufficient to meet our needs, so find ways to manipulate the world into doubling our worth. There is no limit to how consciousness can distort our life situations, always with sound justification.


Just as for decades Congress has been lax in exercising its oversight responsibilities over the Judicial and Executive branches of government as spelled out in the Constitution, consciousness cannot recognize its own flaws and deceptions. Blame is always cast outward onto someone else. I am the last person to remove the wax from my own ears, my dog from my neighbor’s garden, my thumb from the scales weighing my just deserts. It is as hard for the obese to stop eating as for the anorectic to eat more. We, personally, are never the problem. Except we are always the problem and can’t see it.


To set a limit is to challenge all comers to do better. Witness The Guinness Book of World Records. Slower growth is a crime against the economy. We have to have more, and more after that. Consciousness can never be satisfied. It is calibrated in relative terms, not absolutes. The grass is always greener somewhere else. Someone else’s wife is more desirable than my own. What, me write the foregoing sentence? I never did. Except I did. Consciousness is restless, always searching, scheming, striving to get ahead.


Do we all live in the same world? Not very likely. Consciousness is a process, a way of seizing the unknown, which is a myriad of processes in itself. With consciousness, everything is on the move, like a juggler’s Indian clubs. Consciousness never rests. Today is day one of the life of the mind. We are born again every hour, every minute. On the lookout for personal advantage, we look at the world from our shifting perspective. When conditions are right, we make our move. Then shift to the next situation, and start again from there.


Does anybody live in my world besides me? Does anyone share my outlook or consciousness? No, we are on our own. Not mothers or daughters, fathers or sons. Certainly not husbands, wives, partners, lovers, colleagues, neighbors, or anyone else. Those you know most intimately you don’t know at all because you aren’t in their heads. Intersubjectivity is a fancy word for the dream that we all share the one world. With that myth—that fallacy—as a basic assumption, then we end up with the world we have built for ourselves because we are constitutionally unable to manage and take responsibility for our personal outlooks and actions. I cite the perennial differences between Shiites and Sunnis, Palestinians and Israelis, Hindus and Muslims, Hutu and Tutsi, Serb and Albanian. Think tribal warfare on every continent, rich and poor, native and immigrant, young and old, and on and on.


In brief, we will never be able to come together across the gulf of our differences until we confront the uniqueness of our respective minds and the worlds they give us. Only then can we make concerted efforts to span that gulf with bridges anchored firmly on both sides, so allowing meaningful engagement between us.


The irony of consciousness is that to come together, we must go our own way. We must learn to take our differences into account in order to grow close enough to understand one another. You must be yourself, I must be myself, if you and I are to grow into us. We are seldom taught that, but the wise among us acknowledge it. Which requires sustained effort on all sides, mutual feedback, caring for one another, and willingness to put nurture and cooperation in place of dominance and surrender.


Can we imagine such a life, much less bring it about? I think the answer requires us to take a hard look at the world we have made for ourselves—the world we actually live in, separate and alone. Is this the best we can do? More of the same will not help. What we need is a revolution in consciousness based on the gifts we have to offer one another from our separate perspectives, not on the wealth and ecstasy we see others denying us, practically daring us to have our way with them by force.