(Copyright © 2009)

I’m finally getting around to linking the summaries of my posts to the actual posts themselves, making it much easier to navigate around my Blog. This wasn’t an issue when I had only a few posts, but now with well over 100, it’s hard to move around without getting lost. So here I am out in the housing authority lobby (where I can get a wireless connection) editing the summary of each post, selecting text to click on, carefully typing the link—https://onmymynd.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/reflection-108-integrity-i/&#160; –I’m really concentrating so I won’t make a mis-! <daaght-daaght-daaght> <daaght-daaght-daaght> Bleepin’ fire alarm goes off <daaght-daaght-daaght> two-and-a-half feet over my head <daaght-daaght-daaght> with strobe lights firing into my brain! <daaght-daaght-daaght> Fire doors slam shut right and left. I’ve never jumped out of my skin before, but <daaght-daaght-daaght> that’s what I do. Heart pounding, I scrape back my chair, trip <daaght-daaght-daaght> on the rug, catch myself, get to my feet. Did I leave the stove on so a potholder could fall on the burner?—better check. I don’t want to abandon my computer, but there’s <daaght-daaght-daaght> nobody else around—I’ll be right back. In the hall in front of apartment 38 I find a lady fanning the smoke alarm with a dust pan. “I burnt my toast!” she says, “How do you turn this damned thing off?” “You can’t,” I say, “the police have to do it.” [Dear reader, please imagine <daaght-daaght-daaght> and strobe flashes all through this narrative.] I run to my apartment, check the stove, call 911, get connected to the police, am told they’re on their way. I go to the main entrance to wait for the police. A guy in a baseball cap fumbles with the key—must be them. Only the one guy. I tell him the lady in apartment 38 burned her toast. He goes to check. I check my computer. I can’t stand the noise, but I don’t want to abandon it. Not that I don’t love my neighbors—I just don’t trust them. Eyes closed, fingers in ears, I wait in the commons room for the noise to stop. My brain taken over by the klaxons, I can’t think. I just sit here, feeling stupid.

That’s about five minutes of a story that took over half an hour to unfold, klaxons and strobes going full bore the whole time. Problem was, the policeman’s key wouldn’t turn in the lock to open the door to the alarm system panel so he could turn it off. He radioed for another key, but the guy who had it wasn’t around. Fingers in ears, I watched baseball cap try again and again to unlock the door, with a fireman looking over his shoulder, and another guy over his other shoulder. In the movies they would have shot out the lock, or broken down the door, but this wasn’t the movies. So the three of them kept parading back and forth—baseball cap, fireman in full gear with boots, and this other guy—from the locked door to somewhere else and back again, always single file. And me watching, sitting on a sofa in the commons, fingers in ears, going crazy from the noise, not being able to think.

Back and forth, back and forth, <daaght-daaght-daaght> all the while, with the blitzing strobe—talk about torture, this was my version of hell. It was like somebody plugging my wits into the wall outlet and frying them then and there inside my skull. Here was a new kind of consciousness, being aware but not being able to think or find meaning in anything. Commotions and alarms! Confusion. Chaos. Whatever you want to call it, it felt awful. I was frazzled, with no end in sight.

But there was an end. Eventually the other key arrived, the lock turned, the klaxon ceased, and in another minute, the strobe shut off. I took my fingers out of my ears and went back to my computer. It took ten minutes for my heart to stop pounding, but I finally calmed down and was able to concentrate on what I was doing.

When had my mind ever been commandeered in that way? The infiltration course at Fort Ord during basic training comes to mind—that was 1955. Me hugging the ground, crawling along on the hardpan through barbed wire, cradling my M-1 rifle in my arms, everything raw and aching, machineguns firing live ammunition overhead. I hadn’t a thought in my brainpan then, either. It was like living the life of a scorpion, or maybe Kafka’s cockroach.

Wait! Suddenly it dawns on me—what frenetic torture really feels like. The reign of the G.W. Bush administration. When crazy things happened you couldn’t do anything about, so you stuck your fingers in your ears to block out the noise. This whole nation was stunned by irrational acts that made no sense. You’d call your senators or write letters to the editor, but nothing did any good. <Daaght-daaght-daaght>—the party line was always the same. This is for your own good, your protection. We’ll take care of it. Go shopping. Go back to sleep. But who could sleep through that terrible time? I remember Colin Powell speaking at the UN, presenting “evidence” of Sadam’s evil intentions consisting of ambiguous radio intercepts and photos of trailers equipped as bio labs—as if these justified the preemptive invasion of Iraq.

Then there are jigging pop-up ads on the Web meant to distract you from what your are trying to do—and the whole business of advertising pounding messages and images into your brain so you’re no longer in control of your own actions. Because the mindless <Daaght-daaght-daaght> became such an onslaught, I threw out my TV in 1986 so I could follow my own thoughts. But the klaxon still sounds in the person of Rush Limbaugh, to name one example, who keeps sounding the alarm over and over again like a tin horn in the wilderness.

Alarms are meant to co-opt your mind so you will switch to automatic pilot in performing some carefully rehearsed plan you’ve been told to follow. But when the key to the shut-off is lost and the noise and bright lights persist longer than they should—or you learn through other channels there is no emergency at all—then the risk is a sense of helplessness (me sitting on the couch with my fingers in my ears), total surrender of consciousness, and the inability to act in an appropriate manner to the actual situation.

Where I live, the alarm system is made by Simplex and every part is painted bright red and labeled FIRE or FIRE ALARM in bold letters. Sometimes, though, it serves as a burnt-toast alarm, and it’s hard to tell the difference. My learning from writing this post is that what’s really required in the modern world is the wit and judgment to tell the difference between true emergencies and alarms that are hyped by those with a vested interest in getting the public to respond a certain way, whether it’s appropriate to the true situation or not. It is always important to know where the key is so you can get in and turn off the system that is the real source of the trouble.

Fire Alarm

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

The center of the spectacle is straight overhead. Looking up, I see streamers shimmering from around the horizon toward that focus where, wavering, flowing, they whirl together in a pulsing gyre of living forms that spreads and contracts and shifts its shape as I watch. Glowing spiders turn into snakes into eyes into butterflies. The air is clear, sky dark, each star a vivid needle of light. Beneath the stars, the cartwheel aurora rings its changes without repetition as if two eyes aren’t enough to take it in and I need ears as well. I am having a whole-body experience. Candle flames turn into running wolves into great whales into chickens, rays shooting above the trees all the while, feeding the gyre, spinning it round and round and into itself. Roses turn to sparklers turn to ants turn to dinosaurs. The spectacle goes on for hours, each second requiring my whole attention. What if I blinked and missed something? But eventually, cold, stiff, tired, I not only blink but go to bed, my head swimming with the best display of northern lights I’ve ever seen—and as it turns out, ever will see in my life.

I wrote it all down next morning, as much as I could remember, making lists of images in sequence as one led to another. But I lost the list, so rely on fading memory in writing this post, trying to get the feel at least in place of exact details. I didn’t know I was having a spiritual experience at the time, but looking back, that’s what I’d say it was now. Wholly engaged and alive, I met the cosmos half-way as it revealed itself to me as if I was part of the lightshow itself. As if I belonged there so I could participate on my own scale of wonder as the sky showed what it could do in spreading its mystery and glory before me. The cosmos was shining down, and I rose to the occasion by paying it the attention—the homage—it deserved.

Speaking of homage, the English words homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all descend from the same root in an ancient language spoken near the northern end of (what we now call) the Caspian Sea seven thousand years ago.  Languages in Europe and Asia based on such roots include (among many others) Persian, Hindi, Kurdish, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and English. Homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all have meanings relating to Earth because that’s what their common ancient root dhghem- meant in the Proto-Indo-European language long ago.

Like reverence and veneration, homage is a show of honor and respect to another to whom it is due. In my scale of values, paying close attention to something is a way of devoting my consciousness to it as a sign of its importance in my little world. It is one way to give of myself in return for what consciousness gives to me. That is exactly how I felt watching the shape-shifting aurora overhead. I wasn’t passively observing it; I was interacting with it on a mutual basis, serving it by giving it prominence in my mind. I call the giving of personal homage in that way a spiritual act.

Typically, people think of spirituality as implying a relation with capital-g God, but that’s not how I mean it. God comes with too much baggage and too many special needs in being the so-called creator, supreme ruler and judge of the universe, party to a covenant favoring one group of people above all others, yet another male in superhero guise, and advocate for subjecting the natural world to human domination. It is exactly that sort of program carried out by the faithful that has led to Earth’s desecration. So many people in America claiming to believe in such a figure leaves no doubt in my mind why this nation is in the sorry state it is today. The God story doesn’t even make a good read as a myth because the main character is so arrogant, demanding, excitable, and intolerant—so patriarchal. As a concept in the human mind, God is a regrettable habit it is time we outgrew—or impeached. No, for me spirituality has nothing to do with God or any religion centered on God.

If not God or religion, what then is the basis of spirituality? Not scripture, surely. More, some form of nonverbal engagement with someone or something deserving the highest level of attention and respect. Such as the display of northern lights I brought up at the start of this post. Like the exquisite lion’s mane jellyfish three-and-a-half feet across I met while rowing, the most beautiful creature I have ever seen—better than a unicorn (had I encountered one). It wafted to Taunton Bay via the Labrador Current; it might well have splashed down from outer space—off Baffin Island, say—and drifted the rest of the way. Amethyst, shaped and billowing like a submersible parachute, fully transparent, it swam just under the surface three inches below me: I could see every detail, including the barbed tendrils it used to snare its prey. I’d seen countless smaller lion’s manes washed up on shore, looking like day-old helpings of raspberry Jell-O. Usually in winter. But this was a bright spring day. I rowed off to get my camera, and of course the jellyfish was gone when I got back. I followed the current but never saw it again. Like the cartwheel aurora, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But that one encounter was what it took to forge a memory I will take to the crematorium.

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope. What I get for exercising my spiritual consciousness is a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, of having a place in the All. Not only a place but having a sense of participating—as myself—wherever I am. I am not obliged to worship anything, beg forgiveness, tithe, genuflect, or confess my sins. Free to be myself, I find my own way in a universe I happen to find very stimulating and often attractive. I am deeply appreciative, but get far more back from the All than the attentions I give. I don’t ask for beauty, it simply appears, particularly when I do not expect it.

Wholly engaged in such a way, I am moved to be alive in that place at that time. We come together, cosmos and I. The word I use for that wordless state is spirituality.

Spirituality, then, is the sense of affirmation that comes back to me when I care for the world that consciousness reveals to my awareness. Care is the essential factor, the feeling not just of being there, but of putting myself out to care for and about where I am. As an Earthling in good standing, I willingly oblige myself to care for my home planet and to respect its inhabitants, both human and otherwise. Spirituality is a looping engagement with my Earthly surroundings such that my awareness is enriched by paying attention to events which return the investment many times over.

I am on top of Cadillac Mountain at dawn as two artists in residence—two dancers—give their final performance. The stage consists of two granite slabs close together. Lighting is provided by the rising sun shining on the barefoot dancers from behind—revealing them as silhouettes. One is seated facing the sun, the other standing with raised arms poised in welcome. The sun moves; the seated figure rises on one knee; the other beckons with stretched arm to the side. As the dance progresses, it is clear the movements are for the benefit of the sun, not the audience. We are merely a backdrop. Suddenly I realize I am made of granite, a kind of menhir, placed among other standing monuments to mark the commencement of a new day. We’ve been here since the Laurentian Ice Sheet retreated 12 thousand years ago. The dancers move about gracefully on their respective slabs, then after a while come to a halt. The menhirs around me clap, bringing me to my senses, so I clap as well. Appreciations are murmured, then dancers and audience drift off. The slabs remain, showing no trace of the performance. It was dark when I arrived at the summit; now the sun is well on its way to a summit of its own.

Spirituality is transformative. It spurs exploration of other dimensions of consciousness, providing novel perspectives on everyday life. I don’t need drugs to achieve such a state, or endless chanting, or stressful postures. All I need is to give myself wholly to experiencing the moment wherever I am. In that sense, spirituality is a celebratory attitude toward consciousness itself.

The word spirituality refers to the state of being spiritual, which means having the nature of spirit, which derives from Latin spiritus meaning breath, breathing, air, life, soul, and other good things. The concept of spirit is based on breathing seen as the essential medium of life. When the baby cries at birth, she takes her first breath; when the codger issues his last gasp, he dies. Life is the interval between first and last breaths. So very early on, breath was interpreted as the vital, animating principle bringing inert matter to life. At a particular time and place, the name for that principle was spiritus, and that name has stuck to our day.

In the meantime, our understanding of life has advanced so we know oxygen in the air is essential to life, but it is not the whole story. We also know food providing calories to burn in the presence of oxygen is essential to life, as many chemical nutrients are essential. And a genome of some sort is necessary to provide bodily architecture enabling the many processes of life. The so-called life principle turns out to be far more complex than the ancients could grasp. Breath and breathing come nowhere near accounting for life. And nominating God as the agent bestowing life by breathing in a baby’s mouth and withdrawing it from the old codger, in light of what we know today, appears not only old-fashioned but simply wrong.

So we are left with the word spirituality in our vocabulary that cannot possibly mean what it once did. Understanding has moved on, leaving it an orphan, a word without meaning. Yet, too, a word toward which we have an attitude of respect because it was so useful in explaining the mystery of life. What do we do with it? We have a choice: stick to old ways, or graft new understanding onto old roots. Keep the term but give it a new meaning—exactly what I am up to in this post. That way, we acknowledge our nature as creatures of habit, but give ourselves a push forward in updating the conventional wisdom of our day. (The term God, too, needs updating because its former meaning as spiritual ruler of the universe is now so eroded as to be full of holes, leaving many of us trying to catch rain in a sieve. But that’s another post for another day.)

Take One: I am in a parking lot, beneath a poplar just leafing out. Carole and I are ignoring the cars, looking up at a yellow-and-black bird singing on a branch of the tree like the muezzin in his minaret. We have cause to listen: that male goldfinch is announcing himself to (the female portion of) his world, “I will support you with my vigor and the territory I am claiming even now; won’t you join me?” Truth and beauty from the beak of a bird. Take Two: We are entering Acadia from Route 3 by a path leading across the top of a beaver dam. The air is filled with music. Carole points across the pond to a red dot high in a dead tree. That dot is the source of the melody we hear—a male scarlet tanager singing his heart out—commanding us and every other eared being within range to listen with awe to that one voice of all voices in the universe. Take Three: I am alone on an island in April, walking from the stone cabin my father built in 1940-41 to the shingled cabin I built in 1976. It rained in the night; everything is damp and dripping, including me as I brush spruce boughs aside. Even so, I am having the time of my life listening to a male robin I cannot see in the tree overhead, caroling what I take to be the finest song ever sung. I didn’t know robins had it in them. But they are thrushes after all, related to hermit and wood thrushes, so I stand still for twenty minutes and give myself to wet woods that can produce such a sound.

Spiritual takes, all three. Transporting, transformative, never to be forgotten. When the universe calls, I stop to listen. Spirituality is that simple. Finally, another encounter with northern lights that rocked me not back on my heels but in my boat.

The night is clear and still. I am rowing to the island after a meeting that ran late. I keep looking over my shoulder to see the pale green aurora arching over the island, and its reflection under the island in the still bay filled with stars. The total effect is of a green eye with a black pupil: the island and its reflection being inside the shimmering green lozenge of the aurora and its reflection. Of all creatures on Earth, I am the only one to witness the apparition of this celestial eye looking back at me. In a sense, an illusion, but all awareness is illusion. I give up trying to row and turn my boat around so I, at my rowing station, can face north. What can I say? This is a time for looking, not speaking. For savoring, not acting. Everything comes together in this moment, island, aurora, universe, and me.

Sunrise-72

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Hand motions are planned in the pre-motor areas of the brain, so in a very personal sense such motions represent activity in those areas. As such, they can be seen to map out neural activity in the brain that planned and executed them. As an example, I offer this score by Johan Sebastian Bach as a map of neural activity at the focus of his conscious attention.

  Bach

On any given staff, pitch is told by the vertical placement of notes, development of tonal relationships in time by the sequence of notes along the horizontal dimension. We think of Bach as composing music, but another way of looking at him is as a mapper of his own mind in two dimensions—in sound first, then notation used to represent the original as a basis for subsequent performances. Whatever their medium, creative people give us representations of their conscious neural activity. Art in that sense is more revealing than we often suppose. Can anything be more intimate than the mental processes of a particular man or woman focused on a project of importance in personal awareness?

For another example, take this schematic diagram of a football play Coach asks his players to learn by tomorrow’s practice. Based on his personal experience, it comes straight off the top of his brain.

Football Play Diagram-72

Another diagram, another series of gestures, another map of someone’s mind. It isn’t just artists who turn themselves inside-out in performing their duties. Everyone does it. When Mom cooks dinner or bakes a cake, her brain tells her how to do it. The tasty results are as much a map of her mind as Bach’s scores are of his. Maybe she followed a recipe in cooking from scratch; maybe she opened a package of cake mix. However she did it, it was her brain that told her how to proceed. Even the historian reconstructing the battle of Marathon represents the understanding of his mind, mapping his neural workings in the process. If he gets it right, it is his brain that approves and tells him so.

Battle_of_Marathon_72

When the Persians (red) moved in from the coast where they landed, Greek forces (blue) lined up in opposition. As the Persians attacked, the Greeks boxed them in on three sides, leaving escape to the rear as an option to their bold pincer formation. The Greek center fell back, but the flanking forces moved in. Crunch. The Persians lost 6,400 men, the Greeks 192. Olympic runner Pheidippides raced from Marathon to Athens with news of the Greek victory: “Rejoice, we conquer!” he gasped, then fell dead in a dramatic conclusion to the first marathon. The map above is a schematic representation of Persian and Greek minds engaging on the plain at Marathon.

Below is an intimate portrait of my own mind in charting results of a study of breeding horseshoe crabs in 2007. My hunch from earlier seasons was that water temperature exerts a strong influence on horseshoe crab mating behavior. Wanting to find out how true that was, I plotted the number of crabs that showed up (colored bars) along with shoreline water temperature (purple line) each day through the breeding season. I counted the crabs and read the thermometer for thirty-eight days in a row, so my brain was very much involved in the project.

HSC-Egypt-72

Results showed that for the first half of the breeding season, the number of crabs correlates closely with water temperature, but after that, the temperature becomes irrelevant. By the time the correlation breaks down, nest-digging and egg-laying are effectively done for the year. After that, water temperature doesn’t make any difference as far as the crabs are concerned. When it begins to cool in September and October, they retreat to deeper water and prepare to hibernate from November through the winter. The above chart shows actual mating horseshoe crabs and water temperatures reduced to data in my mind, then plotted to reveal the pattern of relationship between them I was looking for. Greetings from my mind to your mind.

My last map is a self-portrait of my own mind contemplating itself in December 2005. The red vertical line on the left side represents the motor (muscle movement) or output pole of my mental being; the blue vertical line on the right represents the perceptual or input pole. My purpose in making the map was to show various parallel loops connecting the two poles to make a whole person. The vertical arrows (4.) on the right suggest the relationship between mental effort and mental economy on different levels of mental activity. Full consciousness at the bottom requires greater mental effort than the reflex arc near the top.

On Level 1. I act in the mysterious world and receive feedback from that world—but nowhere am I aware of goings-on in that world in or of themselves. Level 2. shows five internal connections (dashed blue arrows) between the two poles as they complete the loop of experience, but below the threshold of awareness. Level 3. illustrates various possibilities for linking perception to action via the many aspects of consciousness (yellow area), only a selection of which are apt to be in play at any one time. The Hat Switch on the right side of Level 3. represents the choice of perspectives I have available in responding to my self-placement in different situations. 

4_loops_and_levels_72

Imagine a mind that can schematically conceive and depict itself! Not in any external world familiar in being what it is but an internal world that imparts a familiar feel to the world it devises on the basis of feedback it gets when it directs gestures toward the outside mystery and interprets the signals that come back. Here is the only world that can be called real, on the inside, as perceived, made meaningful through interpretation, and then acted upon to maintain the flow through the loop of experience in a state of alertness and vigilance.

To update this 2005 map I would add another dashed line on Level 2. to represent the mirror neuron system which allows me to mimic the actions of others. I would also play up the role of feelings in affecting every aspect of experience. But as a gross simplification of one mind’s relationship to the universe, I offer this version as background to my general approach in consciously coming to grips with my own mind.

Everything we do is an outward and visible-audible-tangible sign of coordinated neural activity in the brain and other parts of the body, some accessible to consciousness, some not. We already sense that when we look deep into someone’s eyes and find them looking back into our own. But by relying overmuch on language as we do in everyday life, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that words can say it all—and so belittle everything else as an avenue of interpersonal connection. By attending to every gesture, every nonverbal utterance, every change of posture and expression, and every artifact as I am suggesting here, we can boost our looping connection with other beings by opening ourselves to more extensive feedback and engagement with worlds far different from our own.

heron-stalking_10-84

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

I am on the street watching a man and his dog. They are linked by a short leash. I can’t tell if the man is walking the dog or the dog is walking the man. They slowly move toward me—very slowly. Dog, from a distance looking like a white Scotty, goes off to the side, sniffing. Man stands and waits. Dog moves forward, man moves forward. Dog stops; man stops. Nose to the ground, dog moves to the side; man waits. Clearly a couple, every motion synchronized in mutual interaction. Two creatures with one mind between them.

Then I think of another such couple I’d seen ten years ago, the man definitely in charge, dragging a beagle across a small wooden bridge, man in front, beagle behind, leash taut between them. On separate missions, the man strides ahead while the beagle, not done sniffing, scrapes wood with drawn claws—I still hear the sound. 

Another flashback: me and Billy Ingram as kids trying to keep up with his swimming-coach father walking home after work. Walking isn’t the word—I am running to keep up, expecting my body language to slow the man down, but he goes even faster. It is dark, probably November. We’d been scouting the college gym after school looking for good stuff, just goofing around.

Then the biggest leap of all: to suicide bombers. Impatient with life here below, eager for rewards up above, not waiting to discover life’s secrets, they blow themselves up—striking down infidels by strapping explosives and shrapnel to their bodies. The more harm inflicted the greater the reward. Voluntary martyrdom is life!

That’s a brief sketch of my travels while eying man and dog for five minutes. Standing idly on the street, I was anything but mindless. Given free rein, my consciousness went its own way. The theme seems to have been states of mind told by how we conduct ourselves in the presence of others. That is, by how we telegraph our attitudes, fears, desires, and expectancies. Do we dance with or lash out at those we claim to love? When our companions prove mysterious, we can at least watch ourselves and discover what kind of persons we are.

Every act is generated by the brain. To learn about the brain, study the acts—your own and those of others around you. Take a levelheaded look at what’s going on. How you act, how you react to the actions of others. Without editing, without judgment. Study how everything makes sense at the time with respect to your situation as you perceive or construe it.

On a trip with my wife over fifty years ago, we are walking down a street somewhere in London, me on the outside. A delivery truck pulls up in front of the restaurant ahead. The driver goes to the back to lower the tailgate. Two employees come out of the restaurant and wait at the curb—a man and a woman, the woman closer to the truck. Heavily, down comes the tailgate—with a blur of some kind of moving parts. Passing by, out of the corner of my eye I see the woman’s cheek ripped open in an instant, revealing white bone and broken teeth against red. I know immediately what happened. The tailgate is held by hinged iron struts on either side, which straighten like an arm at the elbow. The near strut is twisted so not only flips down but shoots out to the side as the tailgate is lowered. Toward the face of the woman just standing there, waiting. I keep walking, talking with my wife as if nothing has happened.

My rationale at the time was that I couldn’t have helped her. And I didn’t want to get in the way of those who could. That was long before cell phones and 911. I didn’t know what to do in such a situation, in London or anywhere. I was out of my depth. So I pretended I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I protected myself by not reaching out, not getting involved. I could have changed my mind as I walked, but I didn’t. I kept on. And never told anyone—not even my wife—what I’d seen until now, when it’s too late to do anything.

What kind of man am I? Callous, weak-willed, fearful. Self-centered. Those were the judgments I made then, and have carried with me ever since. I have often wondered what happened to the woman, and how her injury worked out. How nice, that I should think of her. That’s me on the sidelines, with my standard-issue brain, getting by in routine circumstances, but just barely. I’m the one in the window watching people get mugged or raped on the street.

That’s as near as my mind came to imagining what it’s like being a suicide bomber. Having people blown apart right at your elbow. I got there by paying careful attention to a man and a dog, which reminded me of seeing a dog dragged across a wooden bridge, which took me back to trying hard to keep up with my friend’s father, which led to the tension a bomber must feel to rig herself with explosives in a crowd she despises, and that led to seeing a suddenly shattered face on the streets of London half a century ago as if it were now. Association isn’t a strong enough word to describe a mind’s headlong rush to construct such a scenario from shards of experience stacked helter-skelter in old boxes beneath the eaves of memory. 

Blogging about consciousness is one step up from being a couch potato. I’ve found my level of engagement with life, and that’s what I do. It’s better than dashing off heated opinions about what other people are doing with their lives. When rats come to a new place, they freeze and sniff the air to see what’s going on. That behavior is called mystacial sniffing, which is meant to get the lay of the land in terms meaningful to rats. Me, when I see a man and a dog, I check out my inner experience, sniffing and waving my whiskers at my own consciousness to find out what’s going on in my head. Not everything I find is that pretty. But I’m old enough to treat the good and the ugly with equal interest and respect.

I began this post by considering a man and dog leashed together in my living awareness, and explored where that image would take me. In seconds I was far afield, but the route made sense because my inner workings are connected by paths I myself have cut through the hills and dark woods of personal experience. When consciousness suggests a pattern is to be found there, I pay attention. As Thoreau wrote in his posthumously published essay “Walking,”

There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.

I am out to discover as much order or harmony in my inner landscape as I can before I die, so to familiarize myself with it and offer my findings to the world for the sake of comparison with its own. What better starting place than closely observing the image of a man and dog going their own ways to see what I can make of that? As always, I am amazed by what I find.

 crescent moon

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Thinking about sacred ground, I had a vague inkling of having dealt with that topic in writing up a hike on Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park in the spring of 1997. Looking up what I had written about that hike in my book, ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park, I found this:

Sargent Mountain brings me to my senses. Literally to my senses. To the skilled perceptions that inform me about the land where I live and on which my life depends. On Sargent my soul responds to the music of a mountain, the song of Acadia, my home on this Earth. If I do not respond to that song, my soul is out of touch with the source of its nurture. When that happens, life is at risk. That is why I go back again and again to the mountain that reawakens me to the music, not of the spheres, but of the Earth and its star, the song of the one sphere where I have risen briefly to awareness and whose native rhythms have shaped every aspect of my being and my soul. I am a minute reflection of the Earth soul, one spark reflecting the brilliance of the sun. (Page 224.)

No mention of sacred ground, but that’s clearly the idea I was trying to convey. And am still trying to convey in this blog. I don’t talk about soul now so much as about consciousness. What I’m after is seeing sacred ground as an aspect of consciousness—that music running through my head as I roam this land that I love. Not music exactly, but the lilting feeling deep inside me of doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Of being fully who I am where I am, or thinking of you, who you are where you are when you find yourself right where you want to be.

What is that all about? That feeling of belonging exactly there. Of being drawn to a place and at the same time driven by something deep inside you. Like Ratty coming home in Wind in the Willows. There are two parts to the feeling, the outward carrot, the inward stick. Perceptions and feelings complementing each other, uniting in one self-fulfilling urge to happiness.

If the ground is sacred, you are sacred at the same time. The ground sanctifies you, you sanctify the ground. The engagement is mutual. When person and place honor each other, you feel music echoing inside you. You are moved by the landscape exactly as you make your way through it. Your song becomes a songline of the Earth.

It’s like being in love. There’s no separation between you and your beloved. I’m not talking physical union here so much as a kind of recognition of being made for each other, as thought and feeling are two aspects of the same mind. It’s more than form and content going together. It’s like form is content. They’re the same thing, or belong together as parts of something larger than themselves.

Dedicated or set apart for special use, sacred ground must be recognized and designated by persons aware of the special qualities warranting protection. That would be all those sensitive to such qualities as represented in consciousness. It takes one to know one. The whole of Acadia is sacred ground. I know that for myself because I have been there and recognized it for what it is—an extension of myself—as have the millions who seek it out year after year so they can celebrate themselves in that place.

But I do not intend to limit myself to my native haunts in this reflection. I am writing about love for the Earth by all Earthlings, those of every species who treasure their homeland and homewater, the territory that provides for and supports their particular livelihood in every detail. It is the living who treasure the ground and water they depend on. When we die, those who survive us will carry on with the same awe and respect. Since its territory is sacred, then Earth is sacred, as all life is sacred. I know because I feel that inside me. My consciousness keeps reminding me.

As a sacred planet, Earth is dedicated to the single task of supporting all life. As far as we know, it is the only body in the solar system—or any other system for that matter—where chemical ions and elements combine in such a way to reproduce in the presence of starlight and water. We, this living horde, sanctify these grounds and these waters. We carry representations of their wonders within us, and recognize them in our experience. As recognizers, we respect or venerate the sacred; as recognized within us, Earth too is sacred. We are made for one another.

Sacred ground stirs feelings in us of awe, deference, and devotion. Of reverence. Sounds like I’m talking religion here, and in a way I am. The word religion stems from the Latin root ligare, to tie or bind closely. Oblige and obligate stem from the same root in a similar sense, as “to be bound by ties of gratitude” (OED). Beyond matters of belief, religion requires dedication to a life of service. You have to give for what you get. Which is also true of the gift of life itself. We are obliged to pay for what we get, by dying, surely, but also by caring for that which supports us while we share in the blessing of life. That’s my religion, not a matter of serving God so much as thanking Earth for its many gifts.

Which is exactly what I am talking about in using the term sacred ground. Nobody says we have to serve, we just recognize that obligation within ourselves, as we have a duty to serve and protect those we love. How do we serve our particular place on Earth? By protecting it from harm so it will remain productive and whole. That service is not imposed upon us; it comes from inside. Just as mirror neurons reflect actions seen into actions performed (see Reflection 117: Monkey See, Monkey Do), the very awareness of treading on sacred ground stirs a profound feeling of wanting to care for that ground. Whether for a person, animal, or place, caring is a natural form of stewardship. We want to take care of those we love.

Our modern culture places many obstacles between us and those we care for. Essentially materialistic, it reduces obligations to care and serve to financial indebtedness. We are off the hook if we pay up. Buy diamond jewelry, high-calorie foods, big fancy cars, insurance, healthcare, mortgages, the best we can afford—and beyond. Be generous, as long as you consume what we sell, so says our culture. We are surrounded by middlemen eager to profit from our overwhelming obligation to love and to cherish. By serving those who intercede on our behalf, we come to believe money has the magical power to do what consciousness tells us to do for ourselves. As a result, the objects of our many affections become distanced by eager corporations interposing themselves between us now much as priests of the true church were once happy to intercede on behalf of the faithful they made anxious to pay for their sins.

Which not only drains our spirits and bank accounts, but separates our good intentions from our personal values and means for doing good in this life. We drift away from those we would dedicate ourselves to. We say we care, but when it comes down to serving, we cut ourselves off and, by default, serve primarily our material needs exactly as we have been taught. 

The remedy I find in myself is to serve Earth directly and those truly embodying its gifts. That is, by reclaiming my consciousness from those who would steal it from me, I reclaim the right to honor those I rely on and in whom I freely invest all that I am, including my feelings, hopes, desires, accomplishments, and even my genes. And above these, the Earth to which we are bound. It is my sacred obligation to care for these—and the ground on which we live. If I do not sing of these, what other song is mine to sing?

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

It is 5:12 A.M. I am standing with a group of 18 Native and non-native Americans on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We are in the clouds; it is raining. I am first to arrive… but not really the first. Three fire-tenders have been there all night, drumming to keep themselves warm and awake while keeping the fire. The others arrive at this sunrise without the sun. We circle the fire—and more particularly, the bed of glowing coals the fire-tenders have spread. The coals are pulsing orange; we in our rain gear are blue, green, brown, yellow, red. Three stand under black umbrellas. Rain or shine, we have permission from the National Park Service to welcome the sun, begin a new day, and spiritually prepare for the gathering of Tribal environmental leaders from across the country to start later that morning.

The fire-tenders bless themselves with a smoldering braid of sweet grass lit in the coals. They pass the braid over their heads and backs, arms and hands, legs and soles of feet, wafting the scented smoke over their bodies, clad as they are against the rain. Then they offer the sweet grass to each of us in turn and we bless ourselves in the same manner.

Those new to the ceremony carry on by imitation, doing for themselves as they have watched others do before them. Monkey see, monkey do, I thought to myself as I accepted the braid. But in rituals, performance is everything. If you don’t know your way, you are wise to mimic what others are doing. Then we each pinch a tuft of tobacco from a small basket, and hold it out of the rain as the fire-tenders sprinkle theirs on the coals while saying a prayer, and each of us follows the pattern. For my prayer, I say I am honored to have lived long enough to share in the fire ceremony with those gathered on the summit, including a pileated woodpecker chanting nearby. When all have spread their tobacco on the coals, and bent down to waft the smoke over themselves, the fire is put out and every trace removed as if it never had been.

Fire-Tender

But it had been, I was there, and the traces were lodged in my brain. Specifically, in the so-called mirror neuron system that translates evidence of the senses into action. Consciousness, at the junction of sensory and motor systems, is in on the translating. Whatever actions you pay particular attention to and are motivated to imitate, you can perform because mirror neurons are on the job. First discovered in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons were anticipated by William James who wrote, “every mental representation of a movement awakens to some degree the actual movement which is its object.” Thus enabling Russian babies in the presence of Russian speakers to learn how to imitate Russian (not Portuguese) vowels and consonants. And me to learn the proper way to waft sweet-grass smoke over my body in a fire ceremony atop Cadillac Mountain.

Some researchers conclude that mirror neurons enable us to infer intentions and even beliefs from the behavior of others, but I think that is a bit of a stretch. Angry looks and threatening gestures may well instill fear, but experience advises us to beware seemingly innocent situations as some kind of trap, which I see as due to interpretation, not sadder-but-wiser mirror neurons. Such neurons fire in our brains both when we perform particular acts and when we see (or hear) others performing the same acts—as if all brains were one brain, or are at least wired much the same way.

If someone else looks sad to us, we may be concerned or empathic, but looks alone do not convey the reason for that sadness which, until we understand the other’s situation, is a matter of conjectural interpretation. Look at football fans in opposite bleachers, one standing and shouting with glee while the other slumps in dejection—in response to the same play on the field. Or place yourself in the jury box witnessing one attorney presenting the facts of the case, then the opposing attorney presenting them quite differently and drawing a different conclusion. I think we should not portray mirror neurons as being smarter than they are. The situation in which they perform is every bit as important as the motor gestures themselves.

What mirror neurons do is drape sensory signals (heard, seen, or imagined) in motor clothing as if actor and beholder were the same person and could simply switch roles. But in the fire ceremony, even if I gave a reasonable imitation of a Native American performing a similar sequence of gestures, were our gestures the same or even equivalent? Considering our different backgrounds and understanding of those gestures, I was very much the novice going through certain motions without having the wit to know what I was doing. When the toddler says “dada,” he recognizes the referent he intends by that sound, but knows that referent in a very limited way compared to how Dada knows himself and what he would mean by making the same sound. The idea of male genetic parenthood is far beyond the horizon of the toddler’s small world.

In a neurological sense, mirror neurons are extremely well connected, and their signals bear overtones from other parts of the brain. They not only tie perception to concrete action, but are informed by intention, understanding, interpretation, speech, feeling, and judgment. The feel of the moment is very much a synthesis of many aspects of consciousness. I see the mirror neuron system as bridging between all parts of consciousness at the crucial juncture where sensory input leads to motor output in terms of specific behaviors judged appropriate to the life situation as currently represented in the brain and understood in the mind.

Picture an infant so stimulated that her excitement drives her to flap her arms up and down in wholehearted devotion to what is happening at the focus of her attention. She is excited because her mirror neuron system is excited—but has not yet developed a repertoire of fine-motor responses. Ready for liftoff, she makes like a bird. Think what lies ahead as she learns to suit her responses to whatever so excites her. Think of young Tiger Wood sitting in his chair watching his father practice his golf swing. Think of yourself learning to dance, throw a Frisbee, use chopsticks, or speak like a Valley Girl. Eventually you get to the master class where you pattern your behavior on a performance by the greatest mime-saxophonist-pitcher-poet-chef in the world!

Or else you settle for your halting imitation of their example and decide to live within your personal limitations by sticking to karaoke, restricting your Elvis imitation to Halloween, doting on celebrities, or following the latest fashions. I tried mightily to learn Tai Chi from a teacher who was so impatient with individual moves that he could only teach them in the full sequence of the long form by serving as an example of perfection, which, viewed from the back—or not viewed at all when I was facing away—triggered no response from my mirror neuron system and I had to give up, as I gave up jazz dancing because it was all happening too fast for me to keep to the beat.

The reason that apprenticeships and hands-on training work is due to mirror neurons firing in exactly the same way whether performing an action or observing others perform the same action. Motor planning and execution areas of the brain are involved either way. If you want to paint like Picasso, copy his portraits—each brush stroke exactly—to get inside his head (or let him into your head).

There are a lot of visualization exercises around today, striving to imagine a better future. Picturing such a result and then bringing it about may seem to be very different activities, but they are more closely linked than it seems. The connection is that many of the same mirror neurons are involved in both planning and then striving to realize that plan. To know where you are headed is half the battle; follow-through is the other half. You have a better chance of getting there if you can visualize where you’re going.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, but reflecting on all the behaviors you have learned to execute through imitation will help you appreciate their role in human life. I didn’t just feel like an onlooker during the fire ceremony on Cadillac, I was a participant like the rest. Human see, human do. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything and now lead a larger life because I was there.

 

 

 Ω

(Copyright © 2009)

But enough of my own consciousness. I am also interested in how other people experience their own minds. Since I do not have direct access to other minds in other bodies leading other lives, I leave the reporting of what they discover through personal introspection to them as being complementary to my own research.

From time to time I will post (as guest blogs) such reports as I come across them. Today I have permission to share a piece recently published in the Vassalboro Quarter Newsletter, “A Garden of Forgiveness” by Maggie Edmondson, who lives in Readfield, Maine. Maggie writes, “I am very interested in imagination and the spiritual power of metaphor.”

A GARDEN of FORGIVENESS

Maggie Edmondson

While I was in England this time last year the Chelsea Flower Show was in full swing. There were something like thirty 10×20 gardens created for the event by landscape artists and for several evenings there were shows about them on the television. As a garden lover I enjoyed this tremendously and noted down features I thought I might be able to incorporate in my own garden.

But I also wondered how people might benefit from the garden idea who had no land to plant. My imagination started to work with the idea of designing an inner garden. How would that garden look and feel and smell? Would it be all tranquil shades of green as some of those Chelsea gardens were, maybe accented with a few pure white flowers? Would it have waterfalls or other water features to give it an element of purification and regeneration? Would it be a riot of color to replace a sense of bleakness? Would its form be simple and elegant or strange and fanciful? I had a feeling that if we were to allow our hearts and imaginations to do their nonverbal, image-building work, we might create individualized inner garden retreats which would feed our souls.

Then, through one of those wonderful “coincidences” when I attended meeting that Sunday a Friend who was a keen gardener spoke about her struggles to forgive things from her past. She expressed it as a desire to plant a garden of forgiveness. My imaginings of an inner garden became focused over the next few days toward an inner garden of forgiveness. I started to choose plants appropriate to my memories of places or people—a mulberry tree, a wall covered in climbing roses, bluebells, primroses and blackberry bushes, a stream with stepping stones. I also remembered some of the attributes traditionally associated with certain plants:

Gerbera daisies for beauty and innocence—what a wonderful thing to plant where there has been ugliness and abuse;

Irises for faith, hope and wisdom where there has been despair or lack of direction;

Vines for new life, regeneration in those places which seem dead and withered;

Honeysuckle for generosity where there has been selfishness or closed-fistedness;

Roses for love and admiration, where there has been anger or hatred or lack of appreciation; and

Forget-me-Nots, whose name says it all.

That garden lives vividly within my imagination, within my spirit. I can walk its pathways, experience its healing presence, feel the spirit of the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Thanks be to God who speaks to us in so many ways, including our imaginations.

Iris-72

(Copyright © 2009)

Medical care seems centered more on appointments than patients these days. Without an appointment you are without care, it’s as simple as that. You have ten minutes to state your symptoms. Hello, my name is Thursday at 8:15. Administrative concerns are driving patients right out of the system. Who cares about patients? The wellbeing of the system is all. That’s how it feels.

I have had three or four bouts with a dermatologist this past winter. Each time I’ve walked out of his office with names of new salves, lotions, ointments, emollients to buy and rub on my body—all to no effect. I bought two humidifiers to raise the water content of the air in my apartment, which made lots of noise 24 hours a day, but didn’t ease my eczema.

I asked what caused my rash. The dermatologist said he wasn’t sure. I asked what eczema was, and he said blood vessels under the skin get inflamed, making the skin red, hot, and itchy. Why do they get inflamed? He couldn’t say.

What he did know was how to prescribe expensive chemicals to rub on my body in an effort to treat the symptoms if not the cause of my trouble. It all sounded like peddling snake oil to me. One prescription for VANOS(TM) 0.1% cream cost over $400 (medical insurance cutting my cost to $92). This was to temporarily reduce the symptoms without curing the underlying cause. But the precautions that came with the prescription read (in tiny, tiny type) partly:

General: Systemic absorption of topical cortico-steroids can produce reversible hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression with the potential for glucocorticosteroid insufficiency after withdrawal of treatment. Manifestations of Cushing’s syndrome, hyperglycemia, and glucosuria can also be produced in some patients by systemic absorption of topical corticosteroids while on treatment.

Patients applying a topical steroid to a large surface area or to areas under occlusion should be evaluated periodically for evidence of HPA-axis suppression. This may be done by using cosyntropin (ACTH1-24) stimulation testing. Patients should not be treated with VANOS(TM) Cream for more than 2 weeks at a time and only small areas should be treated at any time due to the increased risk of HPA axis suppression.

With a history of skin problems (I have celiac disease which showed up as a persistent rash that lasted for years), I told both the pharmacist and dermatologist I felt I would be an idiot to spread that stuff on my body. The pharmacist said it was the accepted treatment for eczema, and had been for 20 years. He wouldn’t take it back.

In the end, with help from Wikipedia, I cured my eczema by myself. When first diagnosed, I’d looked eczema up and found that entry shed no light on my problem. But after seven months I tried again, and found the whole section had been rewritten and greatly expanded. Reading through it, I found a passing mention that nuts could cause a skin rash diagnosed as eczema. Allergic to peanut butter, I had taken to cashew butter, but at $10 a jar, I looked for something cheaper. A pound of unsalted, organic cashews cost $3 less, so I went for those. During the winter, a pound lasted me a week and a half. In seven months, I accounted for a heap of cashews. So the instant I read that article in Wikipedia, I gave them up. In three days my rash was gone.

What does this sad little story have to do with consciousness? It highlights the difference between my consciousness of living with a painful rash night and day for over half a year, the pharmacist’s consciousness of making a living from the suffering of people like myself, and the doctor’s consciousness of being a go-between with the pharmaceutical industry on one hand and the suffering public on the other, a public whose symptoms he is happy to treat, as long as they meet him on his terms in his office and don’t pester him between appointments. Me, I felt like a rat running an electrified maze to see how long I could stand the shocks.  

It is my nature to try to understand why things are as they are. To me, eczema, God, the universe, and human consciousness are all the same: mysteries to be investigated and—as far as possible—understood. I don’t know very much about any one thing, but I do have an inquiring mind. And once I get on a case, I stick with it until it makes sense to me. Everything that runs through my mind for whatever reason is an opportunity for greater understanding. Even the quirks of my own body and mind. Especially the quirks of my own body and mind. I am the single aspect of the universe I have the best opportunity to observe, and through observation over a long enough period of time, to understand.

I had a somewhat similar experience with an earlier rash that claimed my body 20 years ago. I went through the same routine, going to various doctors, finding a dermatologist in Bangor, rubbing an assortment of lotions and ointments on my skin—all to no avail. My rash had a will of its own. After years of ineffective treatment, the dermatologist removed a chunk of skin for a biopsy, and the diagnosis came back: Dermatitis herpetiformis. What causes that? An irritant that collects in the skin. And that was it. Now I had a fancy name for my ailment. To learn that secret Latin name cost me three thousand dollars, the price of joining the fraternal order of jackasses. But as an initiate I got no privileges beyond the right to flaunt those two words.

Which paid off ten years later when I got access to the Internet in 1997, the Web was being developed, and search engines offered the perfect interface between jackasses like me and those in the know. Working part-time for the National Park Service, I had a computer on my desk. When that computer got connected to the Web, I typed the magic words into NetCrawler—which hooked me up to a site at St. John’s University that said in effect, Dermatitis herpetiformis is caused by celiac disease, and celiac disease is an immune response to the gluten content of wheat.

I’ve been gluten-free for 12 years now. Ingesting gluten caused the villi in my intestine to lie flat so they couldn’t absorb calcium (among other minerals and nutrients), which caused all kinds of havoc in my bones, teeth, and nervous system. The human brain runs on calcium ions crossing membranes in every neuron, making action potentials possible, letting the brain get on with its work. Until I was sixty-five—the year I retired—my brain never worked as I wanted it to. I had inklings what it could do, but it just laid down and died when my expectations were too high.

Is it any wonder why I put my working brain out in full public view on the Web in this blog? I have used the Web twice to find answers to serious problems. There are answers to be found if you hit on the right source. It took me a lifetime to find that out, so now I’m trying to shorten the wait in regard to questions about consciousness that introspection can explore. Not that I have answers, but I do have a drive to pursue questions, and I’ve still got some days of hot pursuit in me yet.

As I see it, the world is not so much a monument to humanity’s great accomplishments as it is a great big question mark. And our job is not to flaunt how great we are but to get down to the hard work of answering important questions—especially those nobody has thought to ask till now because they weren’t in a position to ask. Such as diagnosing and treating the world’s ills, which are becoming more evident every day.

If our numbers and appetites are a problem not only for ourselves but for Earth itself, we’ve got to do something about them. I don’t see us making any headway until we ask the right questions in the right way in the right place. I am here to suggest that all problems that evade conscious scrutiny will remain problems until we engage them deliberately in full-frontal conscious investigations and deliberations.

If the narrow scope of human consciousness is the problem, then the solution depends on expanding the reach of consciousness until it embraces our human activities and impacts as a whole. One thing I am sure of, collectively we and our ways are the source of the problem. Until we can consciously deal with our unwitting complicity, we are shielding ourselves from questions that need to be asked.

Consciousness begins with a good challenge—a good question. After that, it will serve us well as long as we stay focused. Our cultural witch doctors can’t do our work for us. Let us examine ourselves firsthand so we can find our own cure!

?

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

Ω

(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.