(Copyright © 2009)

 

The coherence of consciousness is tended by our left-brain interpreter whose job is to make sense of the data available to it from different parts of the brain. If those data are substantial and add to a piece, the interpreter has an easy job characterizing and making sense of the current situation. If they are spotty or contradictory, it must stretch what it knows in producing a plausible account based on what data is available.

 

Each of us is responsible for making sense of the current situation on his or her own. Therein lies the source of our personal integrity. We are more-or-less attentive, detailed, complete, patient, imaginative, and timely in coming up with our take on what we think is happening in our world. In interpreting a poem, for instance, if we attend to every word and punctuation mark, carefully weigh the emphasis given each detail in the sequence of events, and incorporate them in a narrative of what it all means to us, we have a fair chance of understanding what the poet is trying to convey. If we seize on one phrase as meaningful in the context of our personal experience while playing down the rest, odds are we will do violence to the poet’s craft and intent in overlaying our interests on top of her words.

 

Interpretation is a craft in its own right, and rises to an art when we must chose between rival interpretations supported by substantial evidence. Interpretation involves judgments best acquired through deep reflection and long experience. The integrity of our interpretative abilities is important because it represents our preparedness for dealing with life situations in which health and survival may be at issue. If we can bring all aspects of consciousness to bear on such situations, we improve the likelihood that the outcome will prove successful.

 

All manner of habits and behaviors affect our judgments, interpretations, and integrity. Pain, hunger, distractions, exhaustion, mind-altering drugs, alcohol, anger, lust, mood swings—all detract from the cohesiveness of our mental processes, and the suitability of our actions to any and all situations we are engaged in at the time. Each of us must confront his own demons in a trial of strength and integrity. That is, he must employ every aspect of consciousness in rising to such challenges, or not, as may be the case.

 

Life installs many such gates along our path, some at set milestones all must attain, others as random obstacles we must meet on our own. We either pass through—or our journey stops at one gate or another. Integrity helps us make it through as many gates as our physical and mental powers will allow. The last gate is our undoing; none of us possess integrity sufficient to getting through that one. Which, if we have done our best to learn what every gate has to teach us, is no defeat.

 

The flip side of integrity is respect for others we meet along the way. We recognize how hard they have worked to get this far, so their integrity deserves our highest regard. Like passing ships, we hail each other and sail on. There is a dignity to the process, an appreciation for what it takes to come on the scene, to struggle, to develop some degree of competence, to keep on and ever on.

 

Integrity casts an aura about itself, prompting others to aspire to its level. It sets the standard of what can be achieved—and gone beyond. I remember the day Roger Bannister ran the first under-four-minute mile. It was an accomplishment for humanity (at least in the Western World). It was as significant an event as Charles Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic in his day. The training, determination, endurance required raised the bar of integrity another notch higher.

 

Integrity can be inspiring, even contagious. First one individual achieves it on her own. Then its influence radiates outward to show what can be achieved. First within a family or small group, then into the neighborhood, community, tribe or nation, unto the human population. Mahatma Gandhi set a standard of integrity for all people. Inspired by Thoreau, he in turn inspired Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Martin Luther King. As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.” Integrity expressed on a global scale would set a new standard for every individual, spurring a revolution in cohesive consciousness.

 

Integrity, that is, develops in response to stressful situations. Everyone I know who has it, earned it by surmounting significant crises or obstacles in her path. She had to summon all her conscious resources to get through one time of trial or another, more likely a series of trials. You don’t acquire integrity by going to school, you can’t buy it anywhere, and nobody will simply hand it to you no matter how nice or attractive you are. Integrity has to be earned by pitting your all against a challenge worthy of your will to overcome. People with integrity always bear scars. They get them by doing more than anyone could reasonably expect—giving their utmost when others stop far short rather than surrender what little ease and comfort they might have.

 

At the Pachamama Symposium I attended in April, I led a discussion on personal integrity. The stories people told of their struggles to achieve integrity were highly personal yet equally moving. Going beyond addiction to recovery, disillusionment with friends or community, being oppressed, breaking free from a stifling relationship, seeking reconciliation by confronting the truth—in every instance integrity was achieved through sacrifice and hard work. Each story told of a life improved by summoning unsuspected resources under stress. That is what it takes to bring integrity within reach.

 

The biggest challenge to integrity is facing certain death. Every day brings us closer to having to undergo that trial. Walking away from a car crash, a bullet flying by the ear, a close call in the emergency room—there are many reminders that none of us is immune to death. For every one of us, the end is certain. Ambiguity about what form it will take in our case makes it seem remote because we can’t picture it. But we delude ourselves if we think denial will help us avoid it. The true test of integrity—in the sense of the true proof that it exists—is the stance we take in preparation for death by whatever blow, whenever it comes. Which may be this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now.

 

Facing death puts a special premium on the days that are left compared to those that have been spent. Every morning we wake up has a special quality. How can we make the best use of such a gift? How can we be most generous with gifts of our own? What tasks fall to us because of our unique qualifications? How can we make the most of ourselves by participating in this special day of all days in Earth’s history? How can we best deploy the many dimensions of our consciousness in living purposefully and deliberately?

 

Whatever answers we give to such questions will be a measure of our integrity. Of our conscious being at this given time in this place. We have earned the right to do anything we want. What will it be on this day? We can decide about tomorrow when we wake up, assuming we do.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Stop in your tracks and watch those around you striding purposefully about their business. It always amazes me how driven we have become, how earnestly we push on without glancing right or left. We drive the kids to school, to violin practice, to soccer, to ballet, to rehearsals. And then pick them up and drive home. Busyness is our business, the exact opposite of the broad margin Thoreau sought around his life.

 

Having read most of his writings, including the Journals, I have long admired Thoreau for the evident integrity backing up every word. Whatever he did, he did wholeheartedly, his own way. Uniqueness and integrity go together because no two of us are the same. But being busy cuts through our uniqueness, as if routines were more important than personal passions and judgments. What would happen if we stopped and smelled the flowers along the way? We’d be late, and everybody knows it is a sin to be late. Bosses know it, teachers know it, sergeants know it, theatergoers know it, entire corporate hierarchies know it. Lateness can lower your grade, your pay, your IQ, and probably your sex drive.

 

Adopting cultural mores and routines means you have donated part of your brain to your culture for the sake of being accepted. That’s a tough bargain because you are no longer fully yourself. You’ve become a political animal, living part of your life for the effect it might have on others. Wanting to please is one thing, doing it for personal gain is another. Selling your personal integrity is a form of prostitution (from Latin prostituere, expose publically, offer for sale). In our culture, it is an obvious good to watch TV, invest, buy, patronize advisers, consume, and generally go along with the crowd. How do we know? Because that’s the gist of many of the messages beamed at us in modern life.

 

But to take a stand against the onslaught takes integrity—being whole, entire, intact, untouched, or undamaged. Thoreau had that quality, as did Emerson and Walt Whitman. They were their own men, out to be true, not to please. Giving them the biting edge of independent thought, a quality shared with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to name but three exemplars from each sex.

 

The competitiveness of our culture is meant to fracture the integrity of those who oppose it. Backed by wealth and the power of law, corporations will do their best to beat you into a pose of submission, to have you bend at the knees, throw up your hands and cry, “Enough, I’ll go along!” Dominance is claimed to be a synonym for masculinity, submission for femininity—obvious myths in a world requiring both men and women to be strong to survive. But for political and commercial purposes, the claim has a certain weight among those who please by doing what they’re told.

 

For myself, I believe the function of consciousness is to teach us integrity so that whether male or female, we can be wholly ourselves. In the Mind page at the head of this blog, I list various aspects of consciousness that might bear in varying combinations upon any given situation in awareness. These include: attention, feelings, various kinds of memories, motivation, sensory and bodily phenomena, understanding, imagination, intuition, judgment, planning, expectancy, and action (including language).

 

Integrity, to me, means these various aspects complement one another in contributing to any given episode of personal consciousness. They add to a whole greater than their individual shares taken separately. When we get it together, it feels good because it’s all of a piece. When our minds are at sixes and sevens, we know what that feels like—we can’t concentrate on action because we aren’t ready yet to decide what to do. But when the parts work in synchrony with one another, we are ready to make our move without hesitation.

 

Integrity is a sign that the famous binding problem has been solved in a given instance of consciousness. The problem “arises from the brain’s architecture, in which the outside world is represented by nervous activity in a hundred or more distinct regions” (Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness, p. 167). Yet consciousness creates the illusion that the mind is of one piece. Which is what integrity feels like.

 

My finest moments are those in which I am of one mind—not because my thought is so simple—but precisely because it is hard-won from so many sources yet presents itself as a self-made unity. Perhaps contributions from various brain assemblies are in synchrony with one another, which is what it feels like to me. Everything adds up without argument or discord, freeing my actions to be skillful, passionate, and wholehearted. I have served on a great many committees, so I know what it feels like to rub different parts smooth in order to come up with a compromise, always with a feeling of “it’s the best we can do.”

 

Today, a colleague sent an e-mail concerning the possibility of minds meeting in agreement when coming from different perspectives, I sent back this response:

 

Regarding two minds getting together. I agree with you, part way, but come up against the roadblock of personal integrity. I feel I am finally in a situation where much of my consciousness works cooperatively so that I feel wholly integrated as I write. I treasure that feeling because it has been so rare in my life. I threw out my TV in 1986 because it was such a distraction. I defend my turf, now living practically as a hermit (except for weekends). Now that I’ve got myself more or less together, I don’t want to give that up. It is exciting to think of meeting someone concerned with the same issues on the same level—but daunting, too. At least my mistakes are my own. My belief [is] that one life contains all the stimulation required in order to do good work and make a contribution. Am I wrong? Probably. But it feels great doing what I can with what I have. Still, I’m willing to consider—if not fully explore—the options. What happens if my well runs dry? That’s when I’d need help. So far, it hasn’t happened. In the meantime, I pick and choose in the light of my personal judgment. So keep writing and being your own person. Integrity, once achieved, is a priceless possession.

 

Yes, dialogue is possible between persons of integrity. I find it a waste of time between those whose opinions are threatened by dissent because they aren’t fully supported by every aspect of consciousness. That to me seems to be the state in which most of us conduct our everyday affairs. We generally wing it, doing the best we can under the circumstances, often unfavorable.

 

Which is why we play so many games. Governed by rules, they impose integrity upon us from the outside, and by simplifying the number of options we have in making legal moves. If we cheat, it’s too much like work to be fun anymore.

 

Society places so many pressures upon us to do this and do that, it’s a wonder we ever find quiet time for getting ourselves together. I know women who write poetry at the kitchen table during the fifteen minutes the kids take their afternoon nap. Every four days that adds to an hour of integrity, twenty-four hours of integrity every 96 days—almost four days of integrity a year. That kind of serial project may be the best we can manage during our working, childrearing years. In the interests of full disclosure, I am technically retired, but I’ve never been busier in my life. The difference is I do what I choose to do, not what I am assigned. The tradeoff is I’m not always informed about many of the things that other people talk about and seem to take seriously.

 

The juncture (we now say interface) between people of integrity is always the hard part. What good is integrity if you keep it to yourself? Which is the situation my colleague was asking about in his e-mail. Can integrities be shared so they add to more than the sum of their parts? I gotta believe. When we all achieve integrity in our consciousness, then we will act on the best advice obtainable internally and socially, and the world is bound to be a better place.

 

For now, I offer integrity as something to strive for. After that, we’ll have the dialogue that will save the world. Hopefully, some are having that discussion already, so we’re not as far behind as the nightly news would suggest.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

In my view, we are conscious within situations and act within situations, so to change the world, we must create new situations inviting us to further the changes we want to achieve. Situations are domains in which consciousness and action are joined in an ongoing loop of feedforward and feedback. All action is tentative because we aren’t sure of the results until we experience them. We operate through successive approximations guided by feedback, approaching our goal through jumps and starts, then evaluating the results, modifying our aim, and trying again. In the end, we may achieve our goal—or not. But if we don’t make the effort, and pay close attention, we are sure to stay stuck where we are.

 

When nineteen Islamic terrorists brought down the Twin Towers with a death toll of almost three thousand, they created a situation in which the U.S. government felt the need to make a fast, bold, decisive response. The people responded variously, some wanting to learn more about Islam and the Middle East, others turning their hurt and anger into a rage for revenge. The military sent high altitude bombers against targets in Afghanistan, then set about invading Iraq. Eight years later, both wars are still going on, the missions of the two campaigns—after many revisions—still unachieved.

 

When Jews sought a homeland in Palestine in 1947-1949, they sought to gather themselves from around the world after being dispossessed for almost two thousand years, into a state of their own where they could recover their spirit and identity after the horrors of World War II—the most recent insult to their personhood. The situation of the Diaspora led to situations of ghettoization led to a situation of scapegoating and the Holocaust led to a feeling of “never again” led to a situation of banding together for protection led to invasion and reoccupation of the former homeland, and resulting war and Palestinian exodus. The hope for peaceful coexistence, prosperity, and security is yet unachieved, creating a situation in which the energies of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples are being drained day-by-day through mutual antagonism.

 

The Germans created a situation of global instability and insecurity by invading Poland in 1939. The Japanese compounded the situation by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. First the French, then the Americans failed to recognize the failure of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia, misreading the disintegrating situation in Vietnam in terms of the perceived spread of Communism, distorting the situation by creating yet another tragic, unwinnable war.

 

As I have written (Reflection 88: To-Do Lists, posted April 10, 2009), consolidating a variety of tasks into a single list creates a situation within which tasks can be prioritized and dealt with more easily than when treated separately. Credit card companies use a similar strategy in inviting you to consolidate your various debts with them so you’ll have only one payment to make, even if it goes on forever at a high rate of interest.

 

Getting married creates a wholly new situation by legally joining two separate lives—and bank accounts, the true complexity of the situation often underappreciated until the parties decide to separate and go their own ways.

 

Humor flows from situations that generate expectations fulfilled in unsuspected ways. Take Fred and Myrtle, for example. Married for some 65 years, they’d become fixtures on the Maine coast. Fred was a fisherman, first going out for cod and haddock in the groundfishery, then when that failed in 1993, going out for lobster. Fred knew everybody, and everybody felt they’d known Fred forever. Myrtle, meantime, picked crabmeat from crabs Fred brought home, baked her famous strawberry-rhubarb and raspberry-blueberry pies, donuts, whoopie-pies, and hung clothes on the line to dry in the breeze from offshore. But one day in his late eighties, Fred went to his reward. The editor of the local newspaper got wind of it and called Myrtle to ask her to provide an obituary. “No need for that,” said Myrtle, “everybody knows Fred. I couldn’t add a thing they don’t know.” The editor pressed her, saying he couldn’t let Fred’s passing go unnoticed. Myrtle said she’d give it a try. She sat in the kitchen and thought about it, but nothing came. Fred was a fixture, there was nothing more to be said. She sent the editor what she came up with. He called her and told her Fred deserved more than the two words she’d sent in: “Fred died,” was just too short for a man of his years. Couldn’t she stretch it out with more personal details? Myrtle said she’d try. She sat some more over two cups of coffee, then sent in her expanded obituary: “Fred died; boat for sale.”

 

Situations play our expectations against our experience in an enduring exchange that builds over time. We are gripped by the process, contributing our bit, waiting to find out what happens. The playoffs and World Series create situations of national sporting interest. Think Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, and all the other contests we give ourselves to so we can get through the year. We devote our lives to supporting our favored teams, doing all we can to make sure that they win. The spring madness of statewide high school basketball playoffs creates situations tapping into the same energy stream.

 

I remember when clove gum was introduced in the 1940s. I was walking across the street in Hamilton, New York, and met a young blonde in a flouncy, clove-colored skirt who handed me a stick of gum as she smiled and passed by. Free gum! Such a thing had never happened to me. Manufacturers know the personal touch is a good way to get word of a new product spread around, so they hold focus groups to test the waters. I have often thought of what that woman’s day was like, spreading the word about clove gum through small towns in upstate New York, creating a firestorm in the hearts of young boys.

 

If consciousness embedded in old situations has gotten us into the mess we are in today, then what kind of situations might set us on a new course? What sort of situation would alter my personal consciousness so that I would act in my own small sphere to heal the many things we’ve been doing wrong all this time?

 

Survey the situation as it is, list pros and cons, prioritize, visualize an improved situation, then act accordingly. Groups are going through this process all over the world. Women in Nigeria protest oil exploitation by banging pots and pans in the streets. Women in Liberia go on strike and sit by the roadside for the sake of peace. Groups are urging the development of and switch to alternative sources of energy. I went to a four-hour Pachamama Alliance symposium—Awakening The Dreamer, Changing The Dream—this past Sunday, and signed the pledge: “I am committed to bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet as the guiding principle of our times.” Videos presented concrete images of the status quo, activists told of their strategies and accomplishments, we locals discussed how we could direct our energies toward shaping our culture by finding better ways of eating, consuming, traveling, and generally being on the Earth.

 

Traveling alone, the burden seems huge. Traveling together, we can all share the load. Combining our separate experience, consciousness, and effort, we begin to picture a new world. There is no substitute for becoming the change we seek. Others will follow our example. If nobody goes first, everybody is stuck in last place—where we don’t want to be.

 

The main thing is to join others in working together toward similar goals. Think of the new situation as a nest with new life streaming out in every direction from that energy source in our local territory. Taking in radiant energy from the sun, we can put it to more effective use in everyday life than our forebears have been able to do. The new situation is called “the future.” That’s where we’re headed. With pot bangers linked to street sitters linked to seminar goers linked to activists of every stripe in every locale linked to me linked to you, all creating a new situation that is really a new world.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

My posts frequently begin as a shimmering in my consciousness, a kind of beckoning glow or maybe low hum from one direction or another. I can’t call it a thought—more a proto- or incipient presence that might, if I stick with it, evolve into a thought. Language usually isn’t involved from the beginning, but emerges sooner or later. I feel a kind of yearning to pursue something. Yes, to be engaged in an activity leading I don’t know where but fascinating from the start. You see, I can barely express how ideas come to me. Something latent within me wants to get out. I am not the agent, merely the channel.

 

I don’t know how ideas originate any more than where words come from. It just happens in some indeterminate way. I don’t make it happen, it happens to me. First I am drawn or excited by something, I know not what. I get a sense of its latency, then get out of the way so it can emerge on its own.

 

OK, so what started this off? A foggy sense that the function of territory (or its monetary derivative) is to promote sexual activity, sending sperm cells rushing toward egg cells, sparking embryogenesis, the mixing of genes, birth, and the onrush of life. Reproduction, like consciousness, is always situated in a specific set of circumstances. In this case, within a given territory shared by a wide variety of life forms all using it to the same end—to glean enough calories derived from solar energy to perform the creation dance and so kindle a new generation.

 

I keep coming back to this same shimmering kernel of awareness. I can gaze at the woods, contemplate the stars, indulge in sexual yearning, or track my own consciousness—and I end up at the same intersection in my mind where all life comes together. As if all thoughts were one thought, all consciousness one consciousness, all actions one act. Attraction and procreation are integral to everything we do, connecting us to ourselves, one another, our place on Earth.

 

I see that life keeps creating the same situations over and over. There is method in its diversity because its end is always the one end. Boy-meets-girl is ever the same story: Let’s match gametes and see what comes of it. What happens is life. With us, the object is to give the smallest human cell (sperm) access to the largest human cell (egg) at an appropriate time in a supportive environment rich in the necessities of life—food, drink, shelter, and a big enough sample of the social order to stack the odds in life’s favor.

 

I remember my friend Jan coming to Boston from Hungary in the early 1950s and taking up with an Irish girl from what some considered the wrong side of town. “Wrong” in that by prevailing custom their gametes weren’t supposed to get within range of each other. But Jan did it, as Thomas Jefferson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and just about every other person you can name did it in his or her time. If gametes that are not supposed to meet didn’t meet, what would humanity do for recreation in a world without soap operas, novels, movies, or gossip? Where would advertisers place their ads? Clearly, the economy would collapse if boys and girls always behaved as they were supposed to. At some level we are aware there’s little future in just saying “no.” I’m not advocating teen sex so much as taking precautions against conception and sexually transmitted diseases. As a thought experiment, picture your day with the sexy parts (real, imagined, sublimated) left out. In a very real sense, sex is life.

 

Earlier, I approached this topic through my winter appreciation of cleavage (Reflection 50, posted January 16, 2009), asking myself: Now where does that come from? There I wrote:

 

Cleavage is a way station to babies. I don’t have a lust to go that far, but I do enjoy the way station. A little bell goes off in my head when there’s cleavage in the neighborhood. I don’t see it so much as just know it’s there. By a kind of sixth sense. Which is reassuring. Beyond admiration, nothing is expected of me, much less required. I go about my business, the cleavage bearers about theirs. It’s a great arrangement with no strings attached.

 

Sex is right up there with the urge to eat, drink, breathe, be active, and sleep—all necessary to life. Consciousness is ever on the lookout, our autonomic nervous systems do the rest. Judging by our reproductive success, the system really works. But, strangely, it is often hard to appreciate our individual involvement in the life system because of the almost subliminal level at which we become aware of it. If it came at us in bold words, colors, shapes—like stop, caution, or yield signs—it would be easier for us to take responsibility for the results—and maybe even manage ourselves better than we do.

 

It all starts with that little inside shimmer or shiver. Nothing is spelled out, we just know something’s on. So we make our play to see if we can’t facilitate things a bit. Since it takes two to tango, we have to make sure that the other is keeping with us by stirring his/her desire to our level—or that we’re rising to theirs. We each help create a situation that encourages the other to complement our actions through mutual fulfillment. Done right, it’s a great game. As Richard Grossinger writes in Embryogenesis: Species, Gender, and Identity (North Atlantic Books, 2000): “In searching together for their individual identities, [male and female] collaborate across their gap of tissues in fathomless, transpersonal acts” (page 516). Well before chromosomes are merged in the fertilized egg, minds are merged as if that union of souls were the real thing. Evolution grants us the illusion that we know what we’re doing, when very often we have only the faintest of clues.

 

So what is sex all about? Reproduction, certainly, with as much gratification as possible strewn along the way. I view gay and lesbian sex as ancillary to reproduction in freeing same-sex couples from responsibility for the follow-through of sex so they can see to other vital matters for which active reproducers have little time or energy. Reproduction entails caring not only for the zygote, but its potential for developing into a blastula, a gastrula, an embryo, a baby, a child, a youth, an adult, who will go on to play the next round of the game her own way. All starting with a shimmer in someone’s awareness. Some dim little spark of pre-consciousness with the potential for carrying genes and life forward.  

 

Where does that spark come from, that glint of desire? Evolution tends it as carefully as the Chinese did the Olympic Flame in 2008. Everyone knows it matters. Richard Grossinger says this:

 

We must finally accept, in light of the harsh reality of being born and dying, that what we are is a continuation of what the universe is, so all our wishes and fears could not be irrelevant to cosmic process; else how could they have occurred? Our wild hopes for rebirth, our dread of hell and extinction are part of the universe too.

          The journey is unknown; the path is unknown; what will happen is unknown; what it all means is unknown. This is our only solace in a fathomless, cryptic universe.

          The inevitability of death is the same as the inevitability of birth. The forces that brought us here, that acknowledge and cling to life, are the forces that will take us from here. If we shun and vilify our certain deaths, then we must in some way deny the fact of our life.

          We are in the hands of the gods anyway and, if they are not able captains, we were in trouble long before dying; we were in fact in trouble before being born (page 724).

 

Which guarantees full employment for our left-brain interpreters. As mere motes in the universe, we are incapable of knowing how the material universe translates into sexual desire. Are genes or chromosomes alive? No, they are mere molecules. Is DNA alive? No, a long strung-out molecule, but matter nonetheless. Are proteins alive, the products of DNA? Well, they contribute to living bodies, but in themselves do not reproduce, so, no, they are not alive.

 

But somewhere along there in cells equipped with mitochondria, ribosomes and nuclei, DNA enables reproduction, protein replacement and repair, intake of food, and removal of waste. According to an arcane formula, matter is brought to life. And the potential for consciousness and sexual reproduction come along with it.

 

Picture sperm cells racing toward egg cells as if fully conscious of what they were doing (all but one rushing to their deaths; the one that hits the mark getting its genes past Go onto the board for another round). Picture the one egg cell consciously hoping for Mr. Right to make it on time. What are we but gametes up on two legs, walking around looking to get laid? “Our” consciousness is gamete consciousness. Ultimately, territory provides the energy and opportunity for sperms and eggs to meet up, for fertility, nurturance, growth, consciousness, life. All right here on our home planet. Which start to finish, sponsors the whole project.

 

Our consciousness is Earth consciousness. The shimmer and hum that first grab our attention are sights and sounds of ancient seas inviting the first beings to make the leap from an assemblage of molecules to animate life. It makes no sense to think ourselves off the Earth; we are its creatures, born and bred to this place. The spark has been passed for over three billion years. We are Earthlings in every intimate detail. Beyond that, we can’t know enough to ask how we got here. We have no choice but to take care of the territory that takes care of us. Anything else is unthinkable.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

As I have pointed out in previous posts, by various routes, all wealth flows from the Earth. Some routes are more obvious than others. Farmers till the soil, anglers catch fish, hunters kill game, papermakers cut trees to make pulp. My father’s father was born on the family farm in Berlin, Vermont (now the Barre-Montpelier Airport), and wrote this poem in 1882 about an incident in his childhood:

 

The Motto

 

We stood on the old veranda,

My father dear and I,

Of a lovely springtime morning

Such as makes the earth and sky

 

And all which lies within them

Look so beautiful and grand

The beholder truly worships,

If ever, his Maker’s hand.

 

We stood there looking before us

At the landscape flushed with light—

When, far on a furrowed hillside

Was seen a shining, bright!

 

“Look, see yonder plowshare gleaming!”

Said my father, viewing the sight.

“And now,” said he, “take a motto:

E’er keep your plowshare bright.

 

Live, act, and be idle never,

For inaction doth corrode,

But a life by deeds is brightened,

As the plowshare, plowing the sod.”

 

Years have gone by since that morning,

The use of the old plow long been told,

But the words that my father then gave me

Live on, more precious than gold.

 

Living on a farm stirs up an earthy sort of consciousness featuring immediate sensory images born of the soil itself. I remember visiting the ancestral farm with my father in the late 1930s and lurching across furrowed ground to speak with my great-great uncle who, in his 90s, spoke to us briefly with his fingers gripping the handles of his plow and reins of his horse.

 

When you’re on the scene like that—at the interface where Earth’s bounty becomes a commodity—you are fully conscious of depleted or eroding soils; applications of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides; irrigation and increasing salinization; and other impacts from your activities on the Earth. Such awareness provides opportunities for contour plowing, crop rotation, permaculture, letting fields lie fallow, and other practices promoting stewardship and sustainability.

 

But these days, many of us live at a great physical or conscious remove from Earth itself. With over half of all humanity living in cities, we often have to travel some distance to see productive forests, fields, or bays. Many of us work in offices or cubicles, hunkered over computers that present a world exclusively connected to other human minds instead of productive ecosystems. Even much of our food is processed and packaged as if had never come in contact with ecosystems at all. It takes some effort and imagination to trace the many routes that still bind us to the living Earth.

 

Most of our job descriptions make no reference to the Earth, even though everything we do is based on the assumption that Earth is out there doing its thing while we are busy doing ours. It never crosses our minds that if Earth took a vacation, we’d lose our jobs. The entire Internet, for instance, depends on electricity largely produced by burning fossil fuels, supplemented by hydroelectric, nuclear, and a few kilowatts from alternative sources of energy. All of it outsourced to that planet we live on . . . you know . . . Whatsitsname.

 

Somali pirates are much in the news these days. Even their livelihoods depend on the Earth. They hijack other people’s wealth, which in every instance—from weaponry to emergency food supplies—is derived from the Earth. Or they demand ransom for the crew, money backed by assets harvested, mined, or otherwise taken from the Earth. Gamblers think coins issue from slot machines, but that’s only the end of the journey. In the beginning, their value can be traced back to patterns of matter and energy drawn from Earth’s own soil, water, air, or living resources. Investing is a variant of gambling, with much the same story. Like the Internet, those three sources of gain—piracy, gambling, and investing—seem to exist in realms wholly distinct from nature, yet in every case the value they deliver is based on planetary energy stored in an organized and redeemable form. Being unconscious of the fact doesn’t make it untrue.

 

Stockholders own certificates entitling them to share in the wealth of businesses and corporations. That wealth is a kind of territory, a claim on the biosphere or an ecosystem somewhere, a mine, a well, a farm, a forest, a factory dependent on raw materials, human labor, and energy. The certificate makes no mention of any such claim. It speaks only of the number of shares owned, not the source of their value. Stock transactions, like Japanese screens, hide deep secrets behind thin sheets of paper.

 

Taking the world of investment at face value, our whole culture and its economy seem none the wiser about the devastating impact profits have on the natural environment. Where does profit—ill-gotten or earned—come from, anyway? The answer is always the same. It is wrenched from the Earth, usually not prettily. Think strip-mining; slaughterhouses; toxic sludge; air pollution; airborne mercury settling on every stream, leaf, and amphibian. Think of an assay of mother’s milk providing a fair sample of modern industrial pollution. Stock certificates fail to mention such facts, but Earth never forgets.

 

Stockholder consciousness is like pirate consciousness or gambler consciousness—a dreamy world where the drink in hand seems more real than the plunder being dressed as free-flowing wealth. Rather than keeping our plowshares bright by knowing exactly what we are doing because we are on the scene when it happens, we prefer not to know by shielding every aspect of the investment world from the truth. We weren’t there at the time, so we never knew. That’s known as the stockholder defense.

 

We complain about our wealth being taxed, but are perfectly happy to tax the Earth in our stead when we should be paying fair rent in kind for the use we make of the territory we claim as ours. We expect Earth to support us, no matter how many we are or how extravagant our desires. Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do. He was talking about us—humanity—apologizing for our acting so deliberately and cruelly when not fully conscious. That state is our identifying characteristic: Man the half-conscious. Equally true of gamblers, pirates, investors, among others.

 

Money is the screen we use to shield our eyes from the full effect of our actions. The more money, the better the shield, the more illusory the view from where we stand. That is what our economy does for us; that is why we set it up the way it is to protect our self-interest. And precisely what we must undo in striving for transparency if the blindfold is ever to fall from our eyes.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I remember climbing Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire on a hot, August day. Not the actual climb so much as the heat and the glare. I hadn’t liked the feel of the pack against my back, so I’d stashed it between the roots of a shady tree at the base of the trail. My hat was in that pack, along with my water bottle. It was a glorious day with no wind, yet brutal in its way. Bare granite reflected the heat, broiling me from above, baking me from below. Like mad dogs and Englishmen, I kept on as if I didn’t know any better. Dazed, not caring about the view, I touched base at the top and immediately turned down. I can’t recall any details of the decent. My one thought was water in the bottle snug in my pack. My throat was dry, my eyes itched. I pictured myself reaching the tree, ripping open the pack, drinking, drinking. Which is pretty much how it went. I sat on the moss at the base of the tree for ten minutes thinking what a fool I had been. A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Desperation increases the value of that which you need but cannot have. My million-dollar swig behind me, I drained the bottle with a trickle worth almost nothing.

 

Supply and demand in the marketplace are said to set the value of things. The crucial question is, What’ll you give me for this? What’s it worth to you? Not later; right here, right now! That’s how barter works. On Bosworth field, King Richard III would have paid his kingdom for a horse. I would have given ten dollars for a drink on Monadnock. When the farmers’ market is about to close, the asking price for produce that won’t keep drops through the floor.

 

That’s the going price. But beyond pragmatics, what’s the true value of a drink of water, or of a horse for that matter? Does our market economy reflect the true value of the goods and services on which our livelihoods depend? Beyond the marketplace, what is the true cost of milk, hamburger, plywood, gas, a flight to Honolulu from Los Angeles?

 

Depends on who you ask, where you ask, when you ask. If, as I have heard, the entire watertable of Afghanistan is polluted, then a drink of pure water to quench your thirst in Kandahar is worth more than you’d think. Which is why people drink so many boiled fluids in the form of tea, coffee, yak’s blood, etc. And non-Muslims drink alcoholic beverages that kill germs.

 

What do we need to sustain life? For starters we need clean water, fresh air, good food, shelter from the elements, clothing that suits us to the prevailing climate, waste disposal, transportation when we need it, healthcare, love, security, social order, and so on. If our life truly depends on such items being available, then in a very real sense they are priceless. If we can’t survive without them, the question then becomes, what is the market value of life itself?

 

Ask any mother to put a price tag on her child’s head and she’ll say, Don’t be ridiculous! Look at what parents go through in rearing their children. Without complaint. Just the opposite—with boundless love. What’s that love worth? Everything to the ones who give and receive it. Very little to those outside the loop of household intimacy.

 

We all depend on a healthy planet. How does the market evaluate that? Has it done an assessment on a comparable planet? Could it even locate one comparable to Earth? Clearly, sadly, the market ignores the issue completely. As if Earth has nothing to do with all those goods and services it evaluates with such care. Which reveals the entire economic enterprise—including the market at its core—to be the sham that it is. Put simply, the economy we have is not worth bailing out when it gets itself into trouble. We need an Earth-centered economy that puts our values where our bodies are, not just our minds.

 

Market economies are a myth because they neither work nor exist. They are a false claim made by those who benefit from the idea of a market as a ruse for hoodwinking the public into parting with (formerly, “investing”) its money. There is no fair and equable way to set price levels on goods and services that are priceless by definition. The price of anything is what the market will bear. That is, what the seller can get away with. In that regard, most of us are chumps most of the time. Looking to make a killing, but chumps nonetheless. Exhibit A: Clientele of Bernie Madoff and his cohort of Ponzi-scheming impresarios. Exhibit B: The rest of us who didn’t see it (the collapse) coming because, beyond our usual haze, we were in a state of deep oblivion.

 

The market works as long as we believe in it. Lose that innocent trust, and it immediately collapses as a myth before our eyes. Which is where it belongs, a heap of rubble at our feet. Instead of setting fair value, the market deceives us into mistaking the sacking of the Earth for liberty and prosperity. Which is exactly what Friedman and Hayek claimed for a free market economy. Which turns out to be just another theological fantasy to keep the people doped-up and happy while their pockets are being picked.

 

The whole enterprise rests on the notion of private property—that Earth, its land, and its produce can be owned by elite members of one of the species that owes all to its sheltering niche (nest) and habitat. The only problem with the market economy is that it leaves out the best parts—its absolute dependence on the goodness and toleration of the planet that makes it possible in the first place—and which it sacks day by day. Aside from those minor flaws, it makes a good bedtime story.

 

But it’s daylight now and time to awaken to the world that truly supports our every endeavor—the natural world run by complex ecosystems beyond our control—which we repay by setting up phony markets making it easy for us to take far more than our share, and by smearing our offal and toxic waste across its flesh.

 

So much for marketing dreams and billing the Earth. It is one thing for the market to collapse; another for Earth to collapse as collateral damage. Even if we didn’t mean it, we are responsible nonetheless. Behind every exchange of goods and services, all barter, all trade, all economic enterprise, all supply and demand, all private property, all ownership, all liberty and prosperity—stands the Earth. When it fails, we are lost. When it fails due to our efforts and our lack of caring, we are guilty. When it fails because we aren’t conscious of what we are doing, we are truly pathetic.

 

I have read papers in academic journals arguing what one American bald eagle is worth to the human economy. A certain mode of thought looks upon ecosystems as providing services having calculable market value. But the real question is what is the value of the human economy to that eagle, that ecosystem, or to any assembly of creatures, plants, fungi, and bacteria, or to Earth itself? Very little, it turns out. Or, if we are of any value to Earth at all, it is a negative value meaning we owe a debt for everything we have taken and placed on the market. When we see what we have done and are doing to our home planet, then, and only then, can we lay claim to being fully conscious. Until that time, we are in the market solely for personal gain, and are blind to Earth and its plight at our mistreatment.

 

In the forty years since that dry hike on Monadnock, I have made a point of bringing water in my fanny-pack. Even people who are not fully conscious are capable of learning. Life experience is the true master teacher. Just as sweaters are knit stitch after stitch, consciousness is built one episode at a time. If we live long enough, and are open to experience, we begin to get the hang of being fully conscious.

 

Now that many of our great institutions are in full collapse, we have an opportunity to ask what we might learn from the experience. Do we really want to rebuild the economy as it was before—or can we view this as an opportunity for trying something new? Like basing whatever economy we come up with on the fact that the true burden of humanity’s wellbeing rests on the many ecosystems supporting our every endeavor. Maybe human life can be sustainable after all. It’s an idea worth looking into. Let’s explore what happens when we submit our wares to Earth’s marketplace instead of our own, and see if we get any bids from other species.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Money is a pure idea, an abstraction having only symbolic value but no concrete, existential qualities of its own. The sensory or qualitative attributes associated with bills and coins belong more properly to currency issued in tangible form by duly authorized mints in symbolic denominations having value separate from any historic, artistic, or material value they may have. With money, the value is in the mind, which may be projected onto coins in the hand, goods in the market, stashes under the mattress, IOUs, and so on.

The point of money is to facilitate past, present, or future exchanges of items deemed to have value, so enabling apples and oranges to be fairly bartered against the same standard in the marketplace over time. If the price is not right today, perhaps later.

But where does the value of money actually come from? Labor is one source, representing more-or-less skillful work enabled by calories from sunlight via Earth’s plant and animal life. Capital is another, derived from productive land itself or minerals and other commodities taken from land or sea. In this sense, money is hardly symbolic but represents value derived in every case from the nature and productivity of the Earth. In fact the entire human economy depends absolutely on value received from our planet directly or indirectly from the sun. These are tangible, extracted values indeed, not merely abstract or symbolic ones. Backing every dollar, yen, euro, peso is Earth itself, the bank on which our livelihoods depend absolutely.

The French farmer hoisting a clod of soil into the air in his fist, crying: “This is France!” has it exactly right. The state survives by the good graces of its waters and soils, not subsequent human endeavor as is commonly supposed. In the most concrete sense possible, the value of money represents labor, metabolism, food, territory, and Earth resources. In a very real sense, money is equivalent to territory giving us a foothold on Earth. That is its derivation. Territory for producing food to support a worker’s metabolism, territory providing resources—the ultimate capital. Printing money puts us into debt—to Earth itself. For which Earth gets a big fat IOU. In a very real sense, the more we consume, the more we are indebted. We withdraw, Earth pays—that is the system we have devised for ourselves without giving credit where it is due, as if Earth’s gifts were externals and not the ultimate reality.

Having gotten this far into today’s post, I visited the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor on my way to the post office. Browsing through the New York Times of April 12, I came across an OpEd piece by Eric Zencey under the title, “Mr. Soddy’s Ecological Economy.” Mr. Soddy being Frederick Soddy, a British chemist who became an economist active in the 1920s and 1930s. This sentence leapt straight into my brain:

The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment—and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb.

There, in one sentence is what I’ve been trying to say in four paragraphs! And I never even got to the waste part. Of course, to understand that sentence you have to know about entropy—the flip side of work in being spent energy reduced to such a low state as to be useless.

Then I read the whole piece and this 1970s revisioning of the economy as a living system by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen made even more sense:

Like all life, [the economy] draws from its environment valuable (or “low entropy”) matter and energy—for animate life, food; for an economy, energy, ores, the raw materials provided by plants and animals. And like all life, an economy emits a high-entropy wake—it spews degraded matter and energy: waste heat, waste gases, toxic byproducts, apple cores, the molecules of iron lost to rust and abrasion. Low entropy emissions include trash and pollution in all their forms, including yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s sneakers, last decade’s rusted automobile.

Zencey goes on to say [very mildly, I thought] there’s “a systemic flaw in how our economy finances itself.” In my words, we keep overdrawing our account with the Earth because we do not acknowledge our indebtedness, claiming it is external to our method of accounting. That is, it is hidden from consciousness as if it did not exist. Except it does, and we habitually avert our gaze. Our left-brain interpreters never told us; how were we to know?

It is time we learned to live with Earth as good stewards, not on it as if it were merely our pad in the universe. Which means accounting for our fouling of the environment with two truckloads of waste for every one truckload of resources we extract from it. This has been going on long enough that this imbalance is being noticed by those on the forefront of economic awareness who hope to settle our long-overdue debt to the Earth. It’s like credit-card debt, only fatal, not just extravagant.

The best book I’ve read lately is an offshoot from the Quaker Institute for the Future (in some people’s eyes, an oxymoron if ever there was one), a book by Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver titled Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009). To capture the flavor of the book, I offer three excerpts which point to the revolution in consciousness we need to establish a sustainable economy:

1. As we make the personal choices we must make each day, we face the dilemma of being dependent on a society that causes ecological destruction we abhor. We cannot turn away from the modern world, yet we must curb our demands so that the earth’s resources are sustained. We are called to show, by our daily choices and actions, the way toward a more harmonious, more fulfilling, nondestructive way for humans to live on our planet—the way to harvest the fruit without destroying the tree (page 156).

2. Do we have to wait for the earth’s decline to reach such a crisis point that it can no longer support significant numbers of people and species, before we unite with our fellow human beings to bring about the necessary economic and governance changes? If we do wait, widespread environmental degradation and escalating violent conflict over energy, water, wood, and food are inevitable, with even larger and more tragic population movements than the planet is already enduring. Many people will die, and many will endure lives of great misery (page 168).

3. Instead of the anxious, illusory pursuit of more money and possessions, people need to think about pursuing joyful, grateful, and fulfilling lives in right relationship with life’s commonwealth. Values progression of this kind is needed not only at a personal level but also in institutions and enterprises at the community, national, and international level. Many indigenous peoples already have cultural values and belief systems that support right relationships, which rest primarily on respect and gratitude for all that is (page 168).

Imagine an economy based on shared gratitude for the gifts Earth grants us, not on some mock competition for goods and wealth produced we care not where, by what or whom. That will be the day consciousness triumphs over ignorance and arrogance, the day humanity truly comes of age.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Consciousness combines a great many mental processes all operating outside of awareness, its genius being to bind them as if they shared the inherent integrity of one process alone. I seem to remember Christof Koch pointing out in The Quest for Consciousness that the brain contains more than 40 separate maps of various aspects of visual consciousness (motion, color, different orientations, contrast, depth, etc.)—and that’s but one sensory modality. The neural map we seem to be conscious of has yet to be located—or does not exist in the human brain. Like Botticelli’s depiction of Venus on the half-shell rising from the waves, we are more interested in the culminating image itself than the myriad brushstrokes that went into creating that image on a flat surface.

 

In any nutshell summary of consciousness, I would have to include such components as concepts, sensory figures, and feelings blending together at a sufficient level of detail to enable purposive behavior in any relevant situation. Consciousness is not broken down into its parts in awareness but emerges full-blown as consciousness of one thing or another. Cramming the process into the confines of a gross oversimplification:

 

Consciousness funds long-term conceptual categories with immediate sensory qualities in the presence of feelings at a level of detail appropriate to guide purposive behavior within a relevant situation.

 

Which is what we leave out when we say we are conscious of anything at all. We didn’t make it, it’s just there. Which is why the world seems to lie before us (in Matthew Arnold’s words) “so various, so beautiful, so new,” when our brains work so hard to achieve that illusion from myriad bits and scraps of awareness.

 

In Reflection 40: The Meaning of Our Times (posted December 22, 2008), I quoted a letter from one of my mother’s friends narrating the following incident from her childhood:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

Here is consciousness being assembled by a six-year-old girl operating on the leading edge of her awareness. The idea of banana is coupled to the image of a crescent in the presence of awe and a sense of revelation so powerful that she runs home to apply her new learning within the most significant situation in her life, her ongoing relationship with her mother. She leaves it to us to picture her mother gently setting her straight with a sense of suppressed amusement, and the resulting disappointment and mortification that endured for eighty years.

 

In the earlier post, I treated the incident as an example of an effort to make sense of the world. But making sense of things is the job of the interpreter module in the frontal lobes of our left cerebral hemispheres, so here I offer the same episode to illustrate consciousness hoisting itself by its own bootstraps—and getting it wrong. Which is why the story was committed to memory to be retrieved after so many years. Trial-and-error learning has a powerful effect on the brain because it gives us a hint about how the building of consciousness is properly done.

 

Consciousness is something we acquire through countless experiments we conduct on ourselves. Every experiment is a constrained situation within which we can learn something new. We venture a guess what will happen, then see if that’s how it goes. Yes, we are affirmed or, no, we are disabused. Which is exactly what happened in the mysterious case of the “moon-banana.” Red lights flash, klaxons sound, mother smiles, as, disillusioned, the girl sees her error. M-o-o-n does not spell banana. Ah, I see where I went wrong; I mistook the crescent. Teacher really meant it as a new moon. M-o-o-n spells moon. Now I get it.

 

I remember when I was fifteen getting into the back seat of the car behind my father who was driving, and saying something to the effect that I took great solstice from one thing or another—being immediately aware that I had confounded solstice and solace—so being utterly undone in the presence of the Great Man. Later, I looked the two words up in the dictionary to get them straight in my mind.

 

If, as so often happens, we cannot admit our mistakes to ourselves, then consciousness runs as before and our left-brain interpreters need issue no apologies for not getting it right. We are not sadder and wiser but older and more stupid. There’s a lot of that around these days. We see it in pompous politicians, arrogant bankers, posturing experts of all sorts. Everyone has an answer to all questions, and is more than happy to share it with those who are less gifted. Asked about mistakes we have made, none come to mind. As if misjudgments were cardinal sins. As if our image before the world had to be maintained at all cost. As if making mistakes could actually make us lose face instead of demonstrating yet again the depth of our humanity.

 

The danger is not in being vulnerable to criticism but in pretending we are not because we meet the self-set standard of perfection. The height of folly is to insist the world is as we take it to be without examining our own contribution to how we reach for the world in the first place. We underestimate the gullibility of our on-board interpreters when, for example, pride, greed, or embarrassment inhibit their proper functioning and we are unable to admit our own errors even to ourselves, much less to the world.

 

Life’s hardest lesson is that the world we are conscious of is largely our own doing. Our left-brain interpreters do the best they can under the circumstances. That is, as constrained by other factors and modules in our brains. We are not constrained by the world-as-it-is so much as by that world as represented in our heads. The world we know is our version of the world; the two never amounting to the same thing. The “finite provinces of meaning,” “the fortresses of belief” within which we make sense exist in our minds, not the world. Which is equally true for scientists, philosophers, theologians as for other mortal beings.

 

Political campaigns in the U.S. have come to be theatrical productions of one big lie after another. In pretending to be all things to all voters, candidates end up hollow effigies with extended hands because what they are conscious of is wanting those votes. Nothing for them has meaning if they don’t win the race. Maintaining the charade has become so expensive that only millionaires can afford to play the game. And when they get into office, they forget the people who voted for them and have eyes and ears only for lobbyists representing interests with the highest-paid legal teams who provide wording for the laws—the legal reality—they want imposed on the nation.

 

According to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee or the National Rifle Association, m-o-o-n really does spell banana. The world must march to their drummers, no matter what Mummy says. In their eyes, AIPAC and NRA can do no wrong. The only way to run an economy is to get out of the way of the rich by cutting their taxes. It was our duty to wage war against terrorism by invading Iraq. No matter what it costs, private banks and corporations “too big to fail” must be bailed out with public funds. Guarantees of free speech must be extended to corporations so that they have a constitutional right to defend their interests as they want, no matter how private and self-serving.

 

Until we understand the complex nature of consciousness, and our role in creating the seeming reality it presents to us, we will keep running aground on ledges deep within the assumptions we make about the nature of the real and of consciousness as its proxy available to us all. The truth is, all awareness is a matter of interpretation, and interpretation is subject to pressures and influences we do not admit to or know not of.

 

Consciousness exists to clarify our view of the situations we are involved in. Such clarity is not an optical property but an effort to suppress the clamor of rival views in our mental systems, so is always political in nature as representing the interests of personal survival as it is most easily and conveniently understood. Consciousness is invariably presented to the mind as consciousness of one scenario or another in which we are invested. It is an interpretation of mental events, not an accurate depiction of reality. It all depends on what the meaning of of is. Of the mental mechanics of our situated intentionality at the time.

 

According to Merleau-Ponty, Kant referred to the hand as an outer brain of man. That outer brain is driven by consciousness of to reach into the world as if no different from the interpreted world of consciousness. Which is exactly the problem. If as conscious beings we get the world wrong, then our behavior is maladapted to the hidden world that is—and we can’t tell the difference. Until corrected by experience, our illusions R us.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

(Note: This is a continuation of Reflection 100: The Way Ahead, Part I, which appeared Friday, May 8, 2009. –SP)

 

6. We must be cautious in incorporating contributions made by others into our thinking because there is often no way to verify the conditions under which those contributions were developed. No two minds are the same, much less even similar. The most coherent results flow from a single mind fully integrated within itself. If we can contribute anything at all to the study of consciousness, let it rest on the disciplined integrity of individual minds gathered within themselves. Opinions and advice from others often amount to little more than hearsay because the best part—the voyage of self-discovery—is usually left out.

 

7.     Consciousness is fed by concrete, highly processed sensory input being mapped onto an abstract ground of concepts nearly devoid of specific content, together with a certain emotional climate within body and mind. These sensory, conceptual, and emotional components add to a fully-funded experience within consciousness as if they were inherently inseparable in all minds. But the details range widely from person to person, each mind on its own being responsible for the combined import and meaning of the components assembled in consciousness. Often one word will be used in referring to the full assembly, while individual hearers might internally refer to very different experiences by that name. All communication based on or about consciousness must be sufficiently thorough to make room for personal differences in consciousness.

 

8.  Discovery of what it means to be fully conscious requires the extra step of being conscious of oneself being conscious. You have to rise above yourself and look down in awe at the workings of your own mind. How wonderful it is that we can do this, or learn to do it if we haven’t yet developed the skill. This is the gift of introspection, in which the mind observes itself within a situation of self-observation. The more hours you put in, the better you will be able to do it. No life adventure is more demanding—or potentially rewarding.

 

In the world revealed through introspection, a sense is gained of what it means to be humanly aware of oneself. A deep appreciation of one’s own mind is the reward, and a realization that an unexamined mind may well lead to carelessness in addressing world events. By this approach, only the mind can be known: all else is conjecture and speculation—which I suggest is the root of the crisis we are now experiencing. Thousands of pundits broadcast their views, but how many have put in the ten-thousand hours necessary to know their own minds rather than a world situation they can know only partially, and largely secondhand. Thinking about a situation is not the same as living it in personal consciousness.

 

9.  The world has been ruled by assertive, dominant strongmen long enough. It is time to bring a new sort of person to the fore, one who understands compassion and humility as human strengths, not weaknesses. No leader can impose civic or world order by decree. A thousand minds must work in concert to achieve order that is both durable and flexible at the same time. Dominant strongmen rule by primitive force; those who have come to terms with the fallibility of their own minds rule through compassionate understanding. What the current state of affairs clearly demonstrates is the need for less force in the world and more compassion for others.

 

10.     The left-brain interpreter is key to understanding why we individually do what we do, collectively resulting in the world being as it is. It is the executive function of the brain that makes sense of all that is going on in the mind in relation to one situation or another. Making sense is the mind’s chief business in coming up with a plan of action appropriate to those situations. The point of living a life is doing, then redoing, not watching from a safe distance.

 

     To function, the interpreter must be involved in a situation represented in consciousness. It requires a clear focus of attention, backed by a state of bodily arousal. If uninvolved, the interpreter takes a holiday. Which is how we let the world situation get away from us on so many fronts. We simply haven’t been paying attention to the many impacts we have on our cultural climate any more than on the natural world. We have delegated our oversight responsibility to others, and proceeded as if on cruise control.

 

     That is, we have let ourselves be distracted so that our left-brain interpreter is out of the loop regarding the cultural and environmental impacts of our behavior. A sorry state of affairs because what distracts us is often of very little consequence—like surfing the Web, watching TV, mindlessly chatting on cell phones—in general making ourselves comfortable when we should be on high alert.

 

     Life has become so much a matter of routine for many of us, our priorities have been turned upside down so that trivial details are high on our lists and important matters are scribbled in lightly at the bottom, if they make the cut at all. The world we live in is reduced to the world in our heads, which even though all-consuming at the moment, leaves the long-term consequences of inattention to more important matters beyond our mind’s grasp.

 

     Being out of the loop, our interpreters look for interesting reading, or find involvement in pithy drawings by Roz Chast or films by Woody Allen. That is, they feed vicariously on other people’s consciousness and life involvement as more interesting than their own. Such interpreters donate money to worthy causes as a proxy for taking relevant action on the home front. With the collective result that they wake up one day to find the world, the economy, and people at large in far worse shape than they had realized. Out-of-touch interpreters are incapable of planning appropriate action because they haven’t been tracking the various situations which, unattended, have collapsed.

 

     That is why I say we have to pay particular attention to our left-brain interpreters so they make sense of the cultural and environmental scene in a way that corresponds to the true states of affairs. Only then can we engage in activities appropriate to the messes we are actually in because we have inadvertently contributed to them by not paying attention.

 

     Learning to mind the personal interpreter is the primary goal of the program of consciousness study I am here advancing. I mean “mind” in two senses, 1) to pay attention to, and 2) to supervise or direct. If we can accomplish that revolution in consciousness, we can begin to undo the harm that laissez-faire consciousness has inflicted and continues to inflict on the natural and cultural worlds.

 

With this summary of my blog, I seem to be setting consciousness studies back 2,500 years to the days when a panel in the forecourt of Apollo’s temple at Delphi bore the inscription (in Greek), Know Thyself. But thinking about it, I realize that most of the cultural wars and disasters humanity has inflicted on itself and its planet have occurred in those two-and-a-half millennia. Maybe the Greeks were on to something that has been lost in the intervening span. We have become overawed by the material world and underawed by the wonders and follies of our minds. The rub is that we don’t hold ourselves responsible for the world because God or the gods run it as they will, while unobserved behind the scene our minds are given free rein to cavort at random as if by some unstated, basic human right. As Alexander Pope described humankind in the final couplet of his poem, Know Thyself:

 

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

 

The goal of the brand of consciousness study I recommend here is to update humanity’s self-image by going to the source of our problem of inattention, learning as much as we can about the workings of our left-brain interpreters, and then rebooting them with an updated list of priority situations to be dealt with through active participation so that we become less of a joke or riddle to ourselves.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

If I haven’t made my point in 99 posts, I haven’t done a very good job. The world is in a terrible fix because of our collective mismanagement, and I’ve laid responsibility on human consciousness, whose spectacular oversights and failings have come to outweigh its routine successes. The stirring photos produced by the Hubbell Space Telescope are nothing compared to our wasting of Earth, our home planet. Yet we keep congratulating ourselves on how clever we are, or, worse, not even paying attention to the consequences of what we are doing.

So what remains to be said from the point of view of personal consciousness? How does the study of consciousness bear on the world situation? My answer is twofold: 1) seeing the current crisis as a failure of consciousness provides insight into how we helped create the mess we are in in the first place, and 2) suggests ways we can mitigate the crisis by addressing the workings of consciousness rather than the far less tractable workings of the world. We are not very good at distinguishing the world from consciousness of the world. In general, we overlook our conscious contribution and assume we look upon the world as it is, everyone seeing (hearing, etc.) the same thing. That way, if something goes wrong with the world, we have the ready alibi that we weren’t there at the time.

But in truth the reverse is actually the case. To cite one reputable authority at random, Mary Catherine Bateson in Our Own Metaphor, a book that happens to lie at my elbow as I write:

Human beings have the illusion that their senses tell them about the natural world, and this must be corrected by the realization that what we think we know through the senses is in fact a construction [in our minds].

We hear music, see color, identify objects, and carry on conversations, thinking these are aspects of the real or natural world—which they aren’t; in every case they are aspects of consciousness. Patterns of energy exist in the world, which consciousness learns to translate variously as music, color, objects, and meaningful speech. We live largely in worlds of our own making, as dragonflies, giraffes, jellyfish, and sparrows live in worlds of their own making, respectively.

When it comes down to what an aspect of consciousness means, that is a matter for each individual to decide in light of her past experience and current life situation as she understands it. Nothing in the natural world is meaningful in itself. Meaning is imposed by conscious minds. Different minds, different meanings.

Consequently, most of what we know about the world is more properly viewed as a resource for learning about ourselves, if only we frame our inquiry in the right way. That is, by addressing ourselves as participants who are mutually engaged with the world.

Which is why I spend so much time studying my own consciousness through introspection, that I not confound my grasp of the world with the world itself. If I go about it right, I can learn to be more effective in managing my own consciousness; it lies beyond my capabilities to manage the world.

Yet humanity doesn’t see it that way, and goes around fussing about the state of a world it can do little to change. It can create messes, but it can’t prevent them because it projects the source outward instead of identifying its true origin in personal consciousness. Engineers and technocrats make a living solving problems the wrong way to. Have you ever noticed how many of our heralded advances turn out to be disasters? “Better living through chemistry” has polluted the innards of every creature on Earth. And educated people earned good money in making it happen.

I offer my 99 earlier posts as background for drawing such conclusions. In them I tell of mistakenly identifying one thing as another, of seeing things that aren’t there, of not seeing things that are there, and so on. Consciousness is highly creative in addressing the world beyond itself, and therefore highly vulnerable to error and distortion. With the upshot that the world (whatever it is) is largely unknown to us unless we impose tight controls on how we approach it and describe how it works. Which scientists and academicians attempt by adopting rigorous procedures of observation and analysis, while the rest of us take it on faith that we simply see the world as it is.

On the basis of my ongoing self-reflection, combined with my slim acquaintance with modern research in consciousness and the brain, I offer the following ten suggestions for what we must do in coming to grips with the various global crises currently threatening our wellbeing and that of our home planet.

1. Forget about expertise and self-importance in dealing with consciousness. Few of us understand our minds very well, or appreciate the errors they perpetrate through conventional behaviors. I advise adopting a stance of humility in dealing with consciousness because we have so much to learn about how it performs. In this, we all are on equal footing as students again.

2. In addressing the meaning or significance of events, we do well to assume our meanings are uniquely our own until proven otherwise through a broad sampling of meanings conjured in other minds under similar circumstances. We can’t claim to have discovered the truth until that conclusion is warranted by widespread consensus. And even then we must reserve room in our minds for doubt and revision.

3. Consciousness depends on a well-functioning body for nourishment and removal of metabolic wastes. Healthy minds require a healthy body, and ample rest. We sometimes forget how being tired or sick affects mental functioning and outlook. I have learned this through keeping up this blog no matter what shape I am in. Without sleep, I can sit at my computer and churn out gibberish—identified as such only later on second look. My sense is that the enticements of our culture drain away much of our energy, which we do not replenish through adequate sleep, leaving us racing off to work with over-tired brains and impaired consciousness.

4. In turning our gaze from the outside world to the world of inner consciousness, we must all put in our ten thousand hours of motivated and attentive observation and study. There is simply no way around doing the work it takes to get a grip on the mind—our own minds in particular because they are so apt to trick or divert us. As it is, there is little time in the day available for this vital work. We have to make that time in our lives by cutting back on less important activities. In future, consciousness-study programs might well be seen as an important part of the school curriculum for students at every level.

5. Consciousness is always situated within a setting or background of prior experience, as well as a context of other events happening simultaneously. Just as our experience of any particular musical phrase depends on our experience of earlier phrases, so consciousness does not take place in a vacuum but is clarified and made meaningful in reference to what else is happening in awareness at the time, and what has gone on before. That is, consciousness emerges within a context of the now and a history of the then—as available to and represented in the mind. We are not good at dealing with novel, one-time events that happen outside our normal expectations. Once we find a way to place such events in an appropriate situation, we can start to incorporate them into consciousness.

Situations that nourish creativity are often governed by rules providing a framework within which new ideas can be proposed, tested, revised, and brought to fruition. Think of the fun we have playing games. Games invariably have rules, which free our minds to focus on the drama of the game situation. One of the most telling features of any culture is how off-work time is organized in a way to encourage voluntary individual participation in group activities. Think dances, festivals, markets, sports, and recreations of all sorts. Life is more for active participants than passive spectators watching it happen from the sidelines.

(Note: Because of its length, I have divided this post into two parts. Reflection 101: The Way Ahead, Part II will appear on Monday, May 11, 2009. –SP)

To be ¤ continued