Reflection 100: The Way Ahead, Part I

May 8, 2009

(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





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