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.



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