(Copyright © 2009)

I trace the fall of natural religion to the removal of the rites of Dionysus from the Greek countryside to Athens early in the sixth century B.C.E. (before current era) when the tyrant Peisistratus founded an official Dionysiac feast. After that, the wisdom of synchronizing human activities with seasonal cycles of dieback and regeneration was replaced by effete, urban reenactments, many echoed in various liturgical calendars of today. Religious rituals persisted, but no longer moored to favorable growing conditions and the cycles of nature, they became matters more of superstition and convention than survival.

In the case of rural Dionysian rituals as transplanted to Athens, earlier ceremonies promoted human sensitivity to fertility and reproductive vigor of crops and soils through the flow of vital juices symbolized in the person of Dionysus himself. He was the embodiment, as W.K.C. Guthrie points out in The Greeks and Their Gods, “of not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants.” Earlier orgiastic rites mimicking the high drama of the year were replaced in the city by occasions for staging new tragedies, originally in honor of Dionysus, but soon deflecting his creative genius onto mere mortals who were awarded prizes for the fecundity—not of their juices—but their dramatic poetry.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides certainly deserved the acclaim, and every mortal should aspire to their level of creative achievement. But when people are content to serve as spectators of rather than participants in events, we run the risk of passively living through other people’s trials and adventures, which is not the same as forging lives of our own. If we do not live on the forefront of our lives, can we claim to be alive anywhere at all?

Migration of the human mind and spirit to urban centers led to a huge change in consciousness as emphasis shifted from the personal to the cultural. Citified human understanding wanted to housebreak the creative enthusiasm exhibited everywhere in nature as a kind of bad habit, so disciplined it to conform with culturally acceptable symbols and ideas. The former personifications of ritual energy released at appropriate seasons (in the guise of Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris, et al.), became characters in myths and stories rather than forces to be dealt with in everyday life. They served as cultural metaphors for what everyone might feel if they felt anything at all. As Guthrie writes, “The authorities of the Greek states . . . did not accept the barbaric stranger [Dionysus] without, in some cases at least, emptying his worship of its most characteristic content.” You could honor his antics from a safe distance without risking ecstasy, muddy feet, or mussed hair. Guthrie characterizes the result as “emasculation of his worship” by civil authorities in Athens.

In Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, E. O. James writes:

Greek tragedy or comedy began . . . as a religious service held at the festivals of Dionysus, in the country in December, in the city in March, and at the Lenaia in January. . . . But as it lost its seasonal character, by the third century B.C., the drama became secularized, very much as the medieval Mystery and Miracle plays were dissociated from the Church and lost their sacred significance and character when in the secularized versions they were enacted in the marketplace by strolling players.

My point is that when a culture’s practices control the minds of its members rather than the other way around—innate, natural consciousness expressing itself through cultural practices—then the primary purpose of membership in a tribe or larger group striving to live in harmony with its place on Earth has been subverted by top-down authority for the sake of its own power, wealth, influence, and position. We dress this transformation in positive guise as a means of becoming civilized, forgetting the price we pay in putting fetters on personal consciousness. The difference is similar to that between true democracy in opposition to self-serving monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, or other schemes by which the consciousness of the many is shaped by the will of a privileged elite.

Speaking of which, consider the case of Jack Welch. In keeping with the violence done to natural values by adoption of a medium of exchange in the form of a particular currency accepted throughout a culture (topic of my last post, Reflection 160: Of Two Minds), David Owen writes of Nell Minow’s realizing the import of the retirement agreement C.E.O. Jack Welch worked out with General Electric:

The agreement gave Welch not only millions of dollars but also free lifetime use of a company Boeing 737 and a helicopter; floor-level tickets for the Knicks; box seats for the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Metropolitan Opera; exclusive use of a company Manhattan apartment; fresh flowers for the apartment; dry-cleaning and Internet service; tips for his doormen; home security systems for four residences that he owned; numerous golf-club memberships; and dozens of other perks and amenities. . . . Whereas less extravagantly compensated people often take pride in being able to make purchases from their earnings, [Minow] said, ‘If you are super-rich, that thrill is gone’ (“The Pay Problem,” The New Yorker, Oct. 12, 2009).

That’s what spectatorship leads to—a wholly cultural life. Welch’s perks kick-in only upon his leaving the company, proving, for the elite at least, there is life in the hereafter. The very model of a modern tycoon, Welch was gaming his company, his culture, and his planet for all they were worth, playing by city rules the whole time, supporting a lifestyle based not on personal, biological needs and values, but on money (the one value officially sponsored by his culture) to an extravagant degree of degeneracy. Such a life is a caricature of civilized man—all take and no give. With no respect shown the environment (here the Hudson River Valley) that makes life itself possible in the region, the river in this instance receiving G.E.’s waste stream laced with PCBs.

Speaking of cultural devils, members of Congress cease to represent their constituencies when they become members of political parties which intercede between them and their supporters. Here again, the cost of living a cultural existence is the cause, which renders the sound judgment of mere mortals null and void. Every Democrat in the Senate voted to move the healthcare debate to the floor, every Republican voted to keep it safely hidden where it was. As if humans came in two colors—red and blue—with no shades of purple in between. This is a crude example of lock-step consciousness, all members of each party hiding behind the same grimacing masks. Forcing the nuanced values of the people who elected them into either of two molds—pro or con—go or no-go.

In rural areas, people are generally taken as they are; in cities, they spend much of their time posing because, with their individual values stripped from them, they can only go through the motions of trying to make themselves attractive. Now over half of America lives in cities removed from the land, removed from personal values, removed from the mental acumen they began acquiring at birth. There are few self-made men or women left. It is easier to open yourself to your culture and let it take your soul. That is, let the aggressive, arrogant, and over-confident elite—the Jack Welches of the world—take over your mind so you come to believe in them and the values they serve. Where Dionysus stood for getting with nature’s program because human life depended on it, demigod Welch tells G.E., “Get with my program because my lifestyle depends on it!” and G.E. sees its duty and goes along, paying Welch by picking the pockets of its customers, shareholders, and workers.

Whatever your price, buy in to the system and let the magic happen. Pledge proper allegiance, sing the proper national anthem, pray to the proper gods and celebrities, buy the right clothes, mumble the right slogans, go to the right schools, root for the right teams, see the right films, vote the right ticket—you are one of Us! All it will cost is a lifetime of your personal earnings, originality, and self-respect. The main thing is to pay your dues to your culture. To be its creature so you don’t have to deal with the anxiety of thinking for yourself. If you live up to others’ expectations, your culture will see to it that Jack Welch gets his retirement package, leaving you free to live vicariously the rest of your days.

The alternative is to raze the corporations and cities where culture rules every thought and gesture. Visualize the scene. Smell the lust. Savor the greed. Then send everyone back to the country to become bumpkins again—fallible human beings who have to discover who they are the hard way without being sold the answer in advance. Ease back on culture, strive for individual integrity and personhood. Define your own projects and challenges for yourself. Come up with your own answers and solutions. Live your own life. Don’t subscribe to the same old views, don’t keep sending the same checks; forget paying your dues. Aspire to be more than just another member; be your own person. Become conscious again.

That way, when you die, it will be your own life you lose, not someone’s whose mind you have paid for, stolen, or enslaved.

Solitary Oarsman

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Reflection 160: Of Two Minds

November 23, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Like mocha, human consciousness is a blend of two different flavors, natural consciousness and cultural consciousness. Our biological values, drives, and motives are inherently natural; our language, music, art, learning, and skill sets are largely cultural. Human behavior is an expression of natural values as shaped and calibrated by the cultural affiliations of the actors who perform it. We don’t generally distinguish between the two flavors contributing to consciousness—one the base, the other the medium through which it appears—making the study of consciousness more difficult than necessary because the coffee and chocolate that lend it character are so easily confounded.

Every culture has sex, reproduction, caring, and nurture at its core. Without them, cultures wouldn’t exist. Any more than they would without food, drink, shelter, clothing, social companions, health, and personal wellbeing. These are integral parts of the base in any culture because they are of vital importance to every member, male and female, young and old. That’s the coffee.

The chocolate appears in the way individual cultures establish norms for expressing these vital drives so to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of their members (within the framework of social and natural conditions they all share in common). Such norms are intended to enable a diverse population to live in relative harmony by adopting particular ways of expressing their native values, drives, and motives as are deemed to be proper—that is, boosting the probability of individual survival in a socially acceptable manner.

Add cultural chocolate to a natural base of coffee—you get human consciousness with the overall character of mocha. Which some people like more than others. In some cultures women appear in public with their charms draped in dark cloth, while in others they strut their stuff in full view. Some cultures promote hospitality to strangers, others think it wiser to be suspicious of those you don’t know (which is one way of keeping other cultures at a distance).

On the Maine coast, there are a great many subcultures within, say, the fishing industry. Wormers talk to wormers, mussel draggers to mussel draggers, ground fishers to ground fishers, fish farmers to fish farmers, and so on, each staying much closer to the in-group than to outsiders. If you listen to representatives from the various groups speak out in public meetings, you keep hearing each group’s jargon backed by the same-old attitudes, everybody barking, nobody listening to anybody but himself. The problem is always the other guy—the guy you bark at but don’t speak with. It’s the same story up and down the coast as it is between isolated groups everywhere. Could be wormers and draggers, Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans. Once the differences between their respective cultures set into stereotypes, everybody poses as a paragon of the tribe, nobody says anything meaningful, nobody listens. Attitude becomes the whole story, communication is made impossible.

One way around the impasse is to adopt a symbolic medium of exchange to bridge between tribes. I may not like you, but I’ll take your money because money is neutral. I’ll scan your propaganda as long as I have a right to my own opinion. We may even attend the same movies, which our respective outlooks turn into very different movies in our minds.

In our broader American culture, because our currency is the accepted medium of exchange in every corner of the land, everything has a price on the same monetary scale. This speeds and simplifies financial transactions, but makes it easy to believe that money is the prime value in our culture—the only thing that counts—to the point that something without monetary value doesn’t really exist. If you can’t peg its dollar value, what good is it? Thus money becomes not only a medium of exchange but the only culturally acceptable one. That is, it discriminates between what is a socially expedient value and what has true value from the standpoint of personal survival and wellbeing. If clean air or water don’t have a price, they aren’t part of our value system. If ecosystem integrity doesn’t have a price, we needn’t consider it. If honesty or character can’t be priced, do they serve any demonstrable public good? That is, anything existing outside our system of exchange—that is, anything priceless—has no meaning for us. With the result that money becomes the sole scale of value by which we decide what’s important in our culture, and what isn’t.

Which is the root of the national tragedy we are playing out on the world stage. If it doesn’t have a price tag, it can be safely overlooked. Everything can be put on the auction block to see what price it will fetch. If no bids come in, by our scheme it is trash. That is, in settling the differences between us by resorting to the common denominator of cash value—in putting a price on our personal values—we create a system that overlooks what cannot be bought—the truly priceless. Instead of our values running the economy, the economy is now running our values.

Mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia have no value other than as open-pit coal mines. Oceans are to fish, trees to cut down, skies and streams to pollute. That’s the level of value the economy’s bottom line has dragged us down to. In a culture where everything has its price, that price is the only thing we share in common, making every other value not only expendable but a possible obstacle to progress. The end is certain: Earth reduced to a forlorn cue ball orbiting in space, no mocha, no chocolate, no coffee—no life at all. Even now we mistake Earth for a globe, a manmade sphere—as if it met our specifications and not the other way around. We speak of the global economy, not the Earth economy, which would be closer to the truth.

In effect, by reducing their personal survival values to the one dominant cultural value represented by the economy, people are acting as if their culture is everything, their personhood nothing. Imagine a culture entire in itself with members so homogeneous you can’t tell them apart to determine if they even exist. All people reduced to consumers, all else reduced to goods. Only money is real. To settle our differences, that’s the world we have created for ourselves, the global economy in which we all play our role.

In that scheme, ecosystem services have a price. Fish have a price. Trees have a price. Bald eagles have a price. Energy has a price. Sex has a price. Mountaintops have a price. Music has a price. Art has a price. Yes, individual human beings have a net worth or a price. Everything is a resource to somebody, somewhere, so has its price. The highest bidder wins all. In the process, stripping the ultimate value—life itself—from the world household or economy.

Writing these words, I cling to the conceit that I am still of two minds. That my consciousness has not been wholly tamed, domesticated, or taken over by my culture, allowing me to stand apart as a wild-eyed observer capable of independent judgment, thought, and speech. If so, we indies are fast disappearing from the scene, along with newspapers, independent media, regulatory governments, mystics, disbelievers, oddballs, heretics, and skeptics of all sorts.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall was breached, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the re-emergence of some twenty states in Eastern Europe and beyond as independent nations. America claimed at the time to have won the Cold War, and welcomed those revitalized nations into its sphere of influence known as the global economy. Now China, India, and Brazil are joining the club of our kind of thinkers—those driven by dreams of wealth and power based on free-market exchange of every world resource at a favorable price. With one economic system triumphant over its rivals, human differences are seen as irrelevant. We form a global community of exploiters having equal opportunity to mine Earth’s so-called resources. Along with businesses, pension funds depend on profits from those resources, as do art and religious institutions, universities, and every kind of “non-profit” organization.

Instead of seeing it desirable to achieve a balance between our two minds as in the past, we are fast becoming a single-minded world culture bent on converting the Earth into personal profit. Like Ayn Rand and other prophets of capitalism, we have dollar signs on our minds—and little else. No one seems to think it strange that everyone pictures himself on the owning side of the deal rather than on the working or laboring side. Few, indeed, side with the Earth, even though every benefit we claim flows from the integrity of its biological functioning. From, that is, the mountains and streams of Kentucky and West Virginia before we stripped and leveled them for coal to burn in our power plants, producing cinders, ash, and carbon dioxide as by-products.

Repent, the end is near! Or is it too late to come to our senses and restore humanity to full consciousness? That is, can we still discriminate values that are convenient and cultural from those that are biological and personal? In sacrificing all for our culture, we stand to surrender our individual livelihoods to an economic ideology dressed as the only way to live, forgetting that capitalism works best for the very few who are on top. The rest of us are workers in the vineyard who can’t afford to buy the wines we ourselves produce.

One thing I am sure of, even though I can’t prove it, is that there are no techno-fixes for what ails us because every one of them merely passes our current burden to the Earth in a form future generations will have to deal with. In its day, the internal combustion engine was a boon to mankind; now it is a curse. Before that, three-fourths of arable land was devoted to producing hay for horses, cows, and oxen. Think of the manmade chemicals in mothers’ milk around the Earth, the plastic bottles and can liners that diffuse into almost everything we eat and drink. Hydropower turns running rivers and streams into standing ponds, blocking fish passage and the downstream flow of silt. What do we do with all these electronic wonders full of toxic metals and chemicals when we no longer want them? Are we to assume the technological solutions of tomorrow will not have a downside? There will be no more radioactive wastes, superfund sites, G.E.-ified Hudson Rivers? They won’t appear on the planning board; once in place, the toxic flaws we choose to overlook will appear in due order.

Start to finish, it is better to be of two minds than exclusively one or the other. Having both cultural and personal aspects of consciousness is the original checks and balances scheme. Individuals need to counterbalance corporations lest they become all-powerful (as, in fact, they are now). Cultures need to instill communal values in the common man to remind him he is not alone and can’t justify using others for his personal gain. If I want respect, so does my neighbor. Extending it mutually to each other, we’ll get along just fine. If I lord it over him, he’s apt to set fire to my barn.

The truth is, when I act, I act for all as a representative of humankind. There’s no escaping the fact we are all denizens of the one planet Earth. What I do, I do for all and to all. We are responsible for and to one another. That I can horde wealth for my benefit alone is pure fiction. That I can borrow from others and have a third party pay my debt is a fantasy. That I can leverage other people’s assets to make a profit for myself is nonsense. We keep trying these ploys, but in the end we all pay. And in the last analysis, Earth pays. If we think we can get away with it, we are too clever by half for our own good. As surely as we are born, we will die. Period. End of our little universe. The ultimate sign of respect is to hold positive regard for all those other universes that will come after us, whether of our genetic line or not. And to live on their behalf as if they mattered—which as Earthlings they surely do. They are one of us, of our planet, the only one we know of where life exists.

The mocha image I began this post with is too light to bear the load I freighted it with. I wanted to ease into my topic, so presented it in terms of flavors I thought people could relate to. My personal attachment is through serving mocha sundaes in the Schrafft’s Restaurant on 81st Street in New York back in 1953 and 1954. But neither chocolate nor coffee is essential to life. Water and oxygen, however, are the basis of photo-synthesis, the process that, in feeding plant and animal metabolisms, sponsors most living things. Water stands for the culture we are immersed in, oxygen for the biological values that spark consciousness to life. Consciousness requires a steady diet of both. I offer them here at the end of this post as more relevant to biological systems than the flavors of coffee and chocolate I offered at the start. In combination, they are the beginning, not only of consciousness, but of everything, including life itself.

Air, Water, Sunlight

 

(Copyright © 2009)

I pile old newspapers on the floor in front of my coat closet. When the pile gets so unruly I can’t open the closet door, I heap it into my arms and head for the recycling (formerly “trash”) room. Just now, leaving my apartment, I take three strides, then think of the empty gallon milk jug I’d placed on the floor in the kitchen where I wouldn’t miss it. Except I did miss it. Go on, or go back for the jug? That choice lights up my mind for about a tenth of a second. Still moving, I see that I have to make a decision. Normally, I hate interruptions and would continue whatever I was doing. This time I am aware I’d been stepping over the jug for a week, so turn around to get it. Then on to the recycling room with items for the plastic and newspaper bins.

What struck me in this case was the clarity and brevity of the choice. And expecting myself to make a quick decision. And the actual decision to go back for the jug, which is not typical of me. Which all took place in less than a second. There I was, heading to the recycling room, and there I was, conscious of where I was going, and why, and that I was leaving something behind that I had not thought of sooner. The decision point was now, at this stage of this stride. I am seldom aware of motor involvement in consciousness, but here it was, my physical progress down the hall being of the essence.

Increasingly, I am aware of the fleeting nature of the mental processing I call consciousness. Things pop in and out of my mind, and I have the option of tending to them or not. Often, I am preoccupied and tell myself I don’t have time for such distractions. Often, too, they never recur. I had to have been there to decide in that split second. A one-time life opportunity—to be dismissed just like that. Yet that seems to be how my mind works. It proposes, leaving me to follow through—or not—as I choose.

That’s how it is with blog ideas, which flit through my skull like chain lightning. If I don’t seize upon them, they’re gone in a twinkling. Leaving me asking, “What was that?” If I wait even an instant, I can’t recapture one gleam of my brilliant idea. Once in a while, I recognize that I’ve had such a twinkling before. But more often it’s a one-time event. Imagine that—here for an instant, then gone forever! Another lost opportunity. How cruel consciousness can be. To flash an idea, then whip it away. But that’s me blaming my own mind for my stodginess in responding. For me not taking the hint. For not turning the hint into an inkling into a full-fledged idea. For not sitting at my computer and posting to my blog. What a waste of a mind. With me being the wastrel.

The particular incident of going to the recycling room makes me feel that this self I am talking about and who makes decisions in such cases—this particular self is in charge of acting upon the tantalizing smattering of ideas that flit through his mind. I’m talking about me, the planner, the decider, the executor of motor programs leading to actions in the world. I am my physical body and all the muscles, tendons, neurons, bones, joints, and so on that make it work—that is, move about meaningfully, perform gestures, and generally act with intention.

Intention, that is, reflecting the biological values that inform my behavior. In going to the recycling room, I experience three different aspects of consciousness: 1) intentional motor behavior of striding down the hall with papers in hand, 2) the value of doing so in order to reduce the clutter in my apartment, and 3) consciousness itself which keeps offering suggestions on how I might express my values as actions in real-life situations. At the heart of this troika is me, the decider, who changes his plans in the instant and actually goes back for the milk jug.

Trifling, you say? Mountain out of a mole hill? I think not. I am beginning to see that consciousness is far more fine-grained than I have treated it up till now. It is a pulsing mosaic of momentary urges and considerations, seemingly continuous, yet actually resetting itself as situations change and develop. Perhaps William James’ “stream” of consciousness is more intermittent and fleeting than the image conveys. It seems to be continuously up-dated and revised to take progress and obstacles into account, but that updating may well be opportunistic at distinct decision points, so allowing seams between stages as corresponding action programs progress. I don’t really know; I’m fishing here, following a hunch.

What I do know is what happened just now on my third stride toward the recycling room. In a fraction of a second, I changed my behavior because my mind fleetingly offered an alternative plan. Late breaking news! Stop the press! My apartment is less cluttered than it would have been had that spark of mental lightning not struck as it did. Consciousness, I will say now, is given us to actualize our biological and cultural values—to translate our values into action within specific situations as we would have them develop.

Town Clock-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Pen in hand, yellow pad in lap, I sit in my rocking chair at 2:35 a.m., waiting to discover what is on my mind. One at a time, concerns declare themselves, retreat, to be replaced by others. A very orderly process: nothing, then something, then nothing, then something else. Slow and easy. A kind of unthinking. As a mere spectator, I take sketchy notes. This goes on for twenty minutes.

1) Bonnie is gone. She died Friday afternoon. Hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for most of the week. Dear Bonnie, so loving, kind, fervent in her gentle way.

2) Overtaken by events, the plan to honor Ed (Bonnie’s husband of 59 years) on Sunday was put aside. I gave him the cards I had received, and announced that donations in his name came to $4,820. Most of the occasion was focused on remembering Bonnie.

3) Sent checks to FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation) in Washington in Ed’s honor. I wanted the donations to be a done deed by the time he heard about them, I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel comfortable delivering a promissory note.

4) Now on to forming an LLC that will own the island, keeping members’ shares undivided so no fences will ever be put up or lots partitioned off. Only communal ownership will preserve the integrity of the place. Once subdivided, the island might as well be part of the mainland.

5) Chef Jesse, my youngest son, has moved somewhere near Boston. The job didn’t work out as he’d hoped, but he wrote that that was more or less a ruse for making the break. He’s looking for work. Hope he’s OK.

6) Son Ken and his wife Linda’s Wednesday night suppers are their way of sharing with friends. I’m such a stick-in-the-mud about food, I feel like an outsider because, bringing my own little thermos of pea soup, I don’t share in the feast. Damn celiac disease!

7) Friends of Taunton Bay seems to be on the right track, switching from an emphasis on monitoring and research to public outreach. Me, I’m a research kind of guy. I’ll still have enough to do monitoring eelgrass, oysters, bottom temperatures, erosion, sea-level rise.

8) Taunton Bay Advisory Group is hit by low energy these days. Difficult transition to new leadership. Are we on the skids? Local bay management is too good an idea to let go. Spread stewardship around so users all take part in the process. How else can we achieve sustainability?

9) Having gone 186,000 miles so far, the old Geo’s got to keep going. Get that exhaust line patched up so I can get it inspected.

10) I’ve lost momentum in reading Gerald Edelman. Too much happening. Get back in the swing. Six down, only the last two books to go. I’ve followed along as he got his legs under him; now on to his taking full strides on the topic of consciousness.

11) November is car registration month. Pay off the balance due on insurance. Find the $300.

12) Eelgrass (and sea lavender) thrive when there’s plenty of snowmelt and rain; blue mussels thrive when salinity is high from lack of rain. Eelgrass died back in 2001, year of the drought. In this year of the deluge, it’s coming back—and mussels have gone missing. Eelgrass and mussels compete for the same patch of bottom, trading off as salinity rises and falls. I’m beginning to see the big picture. What do I do with it?

13) I retrieved my two water-temperature loggers this fall, read off a year’s worth of data (24 temperature readings every day) from each, and redeployed them one last time before their batteries run out. I see future climate instability reflected in the data, sea-level rise behind that. Extrapolating from the data in hand, any prophet worth his salt can peer into the future.

14) Consciousness is driven by both internal and external awareness. Whatever words and phrases we hear spoken around us when we are young serve to label concepts we form as we grow older. We pick up the customs and habits of our elders, and the terms they use to explain their worlds to themselves. That’s where the notion of god comes from—in the beginning was the word. First the sound of the word from the mouths of others as a label for something unknown, then the evolving concept of what we think it might refer to. Sounds like there’s a blog in there some place.

Then nothing. After sitting for 20 minutes tracking my own mind, I go to bed.

Indeed, there is a blog in those rocking chair thoughts. I woke up this morning wondering how much of my consciousness is due to the culture I am embedded in, how much flows from my own inner workings. Is there any way to tell the difference? I seem to be a creature of my time and place on Earth, and, simultaneously, to be wholly my natural self. The art of living may well be in finding a balance between that pair of loyalties.

One thing for certain: consciousness mediates our looping engagement with our surroundings, directing motor signals outward into the unknown, receiving incoming signals through our senses, picking and choosing which to attend to, which to ignore. Round and round we go, ingesting the culture we are immersed in, responding though acts shaped by and expressing values uniquely our own.

Every one of the 14 night thoughts I had early this morning presents an issue or concern selected from my ongoing engagement with the world. There is a tension between my personal values and events in that world, a tension that arouses thoughts in the middle of the night. Which makes it seem that consciousness is a kind of spark bridging the gap between my current situation and how I plan to deal with it. Have I done everything I can do? Can I do better? The result is a cross-section of my being in the world from my point of view.

Our early education calibrates our animal selves according to the lore and ways of our culture. Still today I find myself counting out the strokes of my hammer, one, two, three, . . . not eins, zwei, drei, or un, deux, trois. One process, different labels. I “know” that seven times eight is fifty-six because I memorized that formula from flip-cards in grade school. I can even prove it by constructing a box with seven units on one side and eight on another, then counting all the units in the box—see, fifty-six like I told you! I also know that houses are built on rectangular foundations and have rectangular windows and doors. On the other hand, those living in rural Mongolia or Guinea in West Africa know that houses are circular with arched openings, or have flaps made of overlapping yak skins. I know what a hat is . . . and that people in other parts of the world wear headgear I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I seem to be part natural and organic, part cultural and manmade. Reviewing those night thoughts again from that perspective:

1) Bonnie’s death is wholly natural; sitting in a circle, remembering how her life has affected ours, is largely cultural.

2-3) Honoring Ed for his initiative, leadership, clear-headedness, and exemplary actions feels personal, spontaneous, and wholly natural; making donations in his name to the organization he used to work for is a gesture of cultural recognition. To honor means to bestow high respect or esteem.

4) It seems a natural urge to want to protect an island on the Maine coast as habitat for humans and wildlife alike; opting out of the commercial real estate market by forming a limited liability company to own the island in undivided shares on its members’ behalf is a cultural solution to the threat of individual owners going bankrupt, forcing partition and sale of separate parcels, thereby destroying the island’s natural integrity.

5) It strikes me as natural that Jesse’s pursuit of happiness has taken him to the Boston area where year-round work is more likely available than in Maine’s seasonal (vacationland) economy; the loss I feel at his moving away also feels natural; that he makes a living as a chef and not a carpenter or exterminator is more a cultural expression of his making his own way in the world. The issue being, I want to send him a check for his birthday, and he has yet to tell me his new address. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time now that he hasn’t responded to my email inquiry; time to follow up on that, my unconscious mind takes pains to remind me.

6) Ken and Linda celebrate their circle of friends by preparing meals for them Wednesday evenings in November, thereby taking steps to create and maintain their own culture; nothing is more essentially natural than feeding one’s own metabolism. Celiac disease is a natural response to our culture’s breeding enormous amounts of gluten into wheat, overburdening the immune systems of those unfortunate enough not to tolerate massive doses of gluten. It’s partly a matter of genetics, which is as natural as can be, and partly a matter of diet, which is largely cultural and traditional.

7) Friends of Taunton Bay is a cultural—501(c)(3)—organization set up to protect a particular Maine estuary, and through revision of its by-laws, now dedicated to informing the public about the state and workings of that bay. As a founding member of that organization, however, I have fulfilled my inherently natural interests and concerns through trying to understand the processes that give this particular coastal embayment its essential character. As my native habitat, the bay and I have an ongoing mutual interaction of long standing.

8) The Taunton Bay Advisory Group, on the other hand, is a more recent cultural creation established in 2007 to advise the Commissioner of Marine Resources on how best to implement the Comprehensive Resource Management Plan for Taunton Bay. My role is to make sure conservation concerns are voiced and considered in group discussions, a role that comes to me naturally in light of my personal values and life experience.

9) Getting around may be a natural act, but automobiles are artifacts of the culture we live in. Without wheels, I could not participate in the culture I was born to. Taking care of those wheels seems only prudent, so repairing a leaking exhaust system is as natural and vital as eating and sleeping.

10) Reading eight of the books Gerald Edelman has written on consciousness is one of my chief educational projects at this stage of my life. Not that it is either easy or fun. But I do think it is important to look at consciousness from a variety of perspectives, and Edelman has more to say about the workings of consciousness than almost anyone else. So I read him and take what I can. Which I find very exciting because he sheds light on his topic from a novel point of view—that of a man trained in molecular biology of the immune system. He is his own man; I am my own man; we get along just fine. If consciousness is natural, then trying to figure out what it is and how it works must be natural. The mental frameworks in which such understanding can arise are products of years of intense speculation and research, thereby reflecting cultural traditions as old as human curiosity and thought.

11) Oops, it’s November: time to register my car. That thought seems to come out of the blue, yet clearly surfaces now because it is alive and well in the unconscious workings of my mind. Car registration is a cultural obstacle to inner peace; recognizing that obstacle as something that needs to be dealt with is a natural aspect of living in today’s world. Cultures are shaped by rules and procedures; if survival depends on mastering such, then abiding by cultural requirements rises to the level of a natural value, and obeying legal requirements becomes yet another challenge for those attempting to live a long, happy, and hassle-free life.

12) I am happy to have lived long enough after the great eelgrass dieback of 2001 in Taunton Bay to have some inkling as to why it happened. This fall another piece of the puzzle fell into place. 2009 is the year of the deluge, the opposite of 2001, year of the drought. Eelgrass and blue mussels are often found in the same habitat areas, sometimes together, other times one replacing the other. In some way, their habitat requirements are complementary. This fall while monitoring oyster set, I got a glimpse of how that works during a search for signs that salt-water farmed oysters were reproducing in the bay. No oysters, but equally interesting, no blue mussels either—attached to boulders we’ve inspected annually since 2005 and up to this year found blue mussels. Eelgrass dieback in the year of the drought; mussel dieback in the year of the deluge. Ah ha, it must be the salinity! Eelgrass likes it low, mussels like it high. I feel I begin to understand something about the bay when pieces fit together like that. Oyster aquaculture is a cultural activity (it is daunting to realize how much human effort it takes to farm oysters); understanding has been a natural activity of the human mind since the first child pounded the first precision timekeeper with the first blunt instrument.

13) Recording temperature data is one thing, interpreting that data is something else, and convincing a stranger that the interpretation is correct is something else again. Research is a cultural enterprise; otherwise we’d just thrust our arm in the air and pronounce whether it feels warm or cold. But the imperative of wanting to know and understand is both personal and natural. We pay attention to what matters. If temperature matters, we examine it closely. In a world that runs on energy, temperature as a measure of heat energy is highly significant, and a change of a degree or two Celsius is a big deal in natural systems because it affects how life-forms in such systems cope with increasing or decreasing heat energy.

14) Cultural rules and customs shape our life situations; native drives and inclinations guide our actions. Round and round we go, our biological values urging us on, the many facets of our culture making it clear just how appropriate our actions really are. Informed and calibrated by culture, consciousness is as consciousness does in the world; affirmed or offended by our actions, culture is as culture does right back at us. If the fittest are to survive, their fitness to the prevailing culture is a big issue. But start to finish, consciousness plays by nature’s rules: culture is a product of human beings doing what comes naturally. Clearly, I am of two minds about almost everything.

Black-and-Yellow Argiope

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Trapped in our minds as we are, we sometimes ridicule those whose minds and ideas differ from our own. Rather than accept or celebrate such differences, we find them personally offensive or threatening, and so lash out at those who dare to be different—that is, different from ourselves. There’s a lot of that around these days, displays of public scorn, mockery, bitterness.

Where do these tongue-lashings come from? These dyspeptic outbreaks? These trainloads of sour grapes? These sneering, snide, and brutal attacks?

That’s easy. They stem from the scornful ones sensing they are on the outs—have lost what they might have had—so are themselves being scorned and put down. In a word, from a sense of personal threat or defeat. Which cannot be publically admitted, yet calls for retribution, so is thereby transmuted into derision, casting blame, finding fault. That way, the defeated cloak themselves in the virtue of the truly superior, and the successful are demonized as dishonest, disingenuous, disgusting, and generally despicable. If the ploy gets enough coverage, the losers pass as winners among their fans. 

As in bullfighting, the art of the faultfinder is in stunning and then exhausting the designated victim, leading to delivery of the fatal thrust. The spiteful predator turns his prey’s virtues into faults, then dismembers the wretched carcass while still alive. Such is the vindictive politics of our day. Whatever you do, don’t take defeat lying down. Rise up and be a man; show your stuff. Rant and rave—and make sure to notify the press. Better yet, be the press. That way you can make sure every slur gets the coverage it deserves. Even if it doesn’t deserve any coverage all, it enters the public mind as if it were news, not bluster.

Illusion, it all comes down to illusion. To deceiving a public that loves sports and spectacle more than truth. It doesn’t matter what you claim, just come out swinging. The audience will side with you and fill in the blanks. They’ve been taught, after all, that life is a multiple-choice test. Feed ‘em the answer; they’ll love it.

No one likes to be publically humiliated. To be humbled—brought down in the eyes of the people. Particularly not those who thrive in the limelight. If exposed as mere mortals, their reflex is to divert attention by shedding light on someone else’s faults, which brings to mind their particular enemy. If he doesn’t have conspicuous faults, it doesn’t matter—just make them up. Deride his accomplishments, smear his virtues, mock his integrity—again and again. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to get traction as a cynic because the public is nothing if not gullible and loves a good fight.

One defense against slings and arrows is to deflect them toward an innocent party. Turning the tables is easy, just spin your vices into virtues (such as speaking your mind), and your opponent’s virtues into vices (such as his not seeking your advice or sharing your values). Spiteful feelings are always an undercurrent when one side wins over another. But when those feelings vent as outrage directed at the other team, igniting violent speech and acts (as after a soccer game when the home team loses), then attitudes are shown to have consequences, like road rage escalating to assault and battery.

The damning of the president by Fox News and others is no game—it is a calculated strategy to dull the brilliance of his aura in order to undercut the stature and power of the man. At best such attacks are distractions; at worst they disrupt judgment, attention, and consciousness itself. These are not personal slights. They are corporate onslaughts, campaigns by organized groups to ruin a man whose intelligence and influence they are afraid of. This is not the work of envy, hurt pride, or rabblerousing on the fringe—this is out-and-out war.

How did we get to this point? And once here, why do we tolerate such behavior? Put simply, there are two classes of people, leaders and followers. The division between them is told not by ability but by wealth. Those without cash, work; those with cash hire the best lawyers, PR fronts, muscle, and outside agitators to see that their wills are imposed on their lesser brothers and sisters. This is a laughable interpretation of “survival of the fittest,” but it has become the bumper-sticker wisdom of our age and our nation. You needn’t bother getting elected, you can buy your way to power. Not only can you, but you must; only millionaires need apply for membership in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. They are ushered into office by the very corporations whose interests they serve. This is far too important a process to be left for the people to screw up by electing the wrong person.

What a sad little story: the collapse of one of the greatest ideas ever advanced by the human mind—with its checks and balances, one vote and equal opportunity for each unique person, and peaceful transfer of power from one generation to the next. A vision rent in two by assuming there are two classes of people, the haves and have-nots, one superior to the other, the nobler (wealthier) class having an obligation to govern on behalf of their dependents. Viewed from the top, that division into classes is a convenient fiction; from the bottom, a life sentence to hard labor.

But consciousness does not come in two classes. There is only one class of consciousness, and it is responsible for promoting the wellbeing and happiness of its owner. It is the social system that has grown up around consciousness that is corrupt in favoring a small but aggressive elite over the general population. Privilege is concentrated at the top, duty at the bottom—the difference told by a cultural mindset calculated to keep power and wealth on the high side of the boundary between the two classes. That is the structure which looms so large in the cynical attacks on the president and the policies he favors, including a fair and decent public healthcare option covering all Americans. Wealthy individuals and corporations fear losing their influence, so their agents scream bloody murder to discredit the commoner whom the people elected to restore balance and judgment throughout the nation and the world.

The voice of consciousness advises treating others as you would have them treat you: with respect and compassion. The voice of status takes a different approach: the elite know best what is good for you; let us rule. The issue rides on whether all people are assumed to be equal or not. Which is it to be, power to the people or power to the elite? That question is at the heart of the fracas. Through experience we know that mutual respect is a better strategy than lording it over others to get your way, then berating them if they don’t bow to your will. Democracy allows for human differences under the umbrella of equal rights and respect. Taking dominion over others is a sure sign of dissent, which invariably leads to schisms, hard feelings, and violence. That is the Fox News route; the Obama route is to regard those who differ from yourself with respect, then see what you can work out together.

OBEY  

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Last Friday I watched the first episode in the TV series Charlie Rose is putting together about Understanding the Brain. Sit a group of experts around a table, all coming from different perspectives, and you get a poker game with each player being an expert on his own hand, striving to outdo everyone else and take the whole pot. One plays the memory card, someone else the neural underpinnings of consciousness, followed by the social underpinnings, or the genetic underpinnings, then on to brain pathology, levels of brain functioning, round and round, hand after hand. Who wins? It all depends on how you look at the brain, and talk about the brain, and bluff your way by trying to convince the rest that you hold the answer they’ve all been looking for.

I have a game like that floating in my head all the time. Writing my blog or teaching an adult ed class, I have to decide what’s really important to know about consciousness, how it all fits together, how it relates to the brain, to behavior, to childhood development, to life experience, to evolution, to genetics, and so on. How do I lay my understanding of conscious out for others to grasp and compare with their own? Blogging and teaching, I have to engage my audience, not stuff my particular views down their throats. It all has to make sense, or if not, at least point in a direction that seems plausible.

When your conscious mind looks at itself—at its own hand—and is not at all sure what consciousness is, or even what the possibilities are, then the problem is doubly compounded and the best thing to do is fold to cut your losses. Sure, know thyself, but don’t try too hard because it’ll drive you nuts. That’s the feeling I had watching Charlie Rose and his panel of brain experts. Which is similar to the feelings I sometimes have while blogging and teaching about consciousness.

Fortunately, one aspect of consciousness is its flexibility, which allows for improvement and self-correction. Old synapses can be abandoned or strengthened, new ones encouraged. So when I feel I’m not getting my point across, I review my situation and try to see how I can do better. After posting 154 essays on aspects of consciousness, together with teaching my recent adult ed class, I offer a few thoughts intended to unclutter and refocus my mind so in future games I can play similar hands better.

Resolved 1:  Put consciousness in a context of alternative ways to bridge from sensory input to action in the world; that is, show how reflexes, habits, rote learning, and assumptions offer other paths to action with more immediate results at a cost of much less mental effort than required to sustain full-blown consciousness.

Resolved 2:   Remember, since the point of consciousness is effective action in the world, the mind must be seated in the brain somewhere near where sensory inputs connect to motor planning areas—between, say, an incoming pole on the lower side of the temporal lobe near where faces and objects are recognized, and an outgoing pole in the lateral prefrontal cortex where working memory translates sensory inputs into motor responses—an area encompassing cingulate and entorhinal cortices, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, midbrain reticular formation, and mediodorsal thalamic nucleus. Though the entire cerebral cortex may contribute to consciousness, the mind seems to comes together between the two poles I have mentioned.

Resolved 3:   In everything we do, our values, feelings, and past experiences (memories) moderate the tension between the poles of perception and action. Reflexes, on the other hand, produce hardwired responses that would be slowed and made ineffective if we had to think about it when, say, sand or liquid is thrown in our face. Consciousness develops over time, so is much slower to produce a bodily response. Values come into play, that set of salient priorities which promote our adaptation to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Feelings give a positive or negative tone to the occasion, alerting us to reach out or be on our guard. And memories of past occasions suggest what we might do (or avoid doing) in light of our history of past successes and failures. Where perception and motor planning intersect, values, feelings, and memories are in the vicinity, ready to influence our judgment.

Resolved 4:   Neural correlates of conscious (NCC) aside, the mind is situated in the brain, the brain in the body, the body in a family within a community within one human culture or another, and that culture within the habitats and ecosystems constituting a region within the biosphere of planet Earth. It is often hard to tell which combination of our several layered environments influences us as any one time. It is safe to assume that, one way or another, all of them are impinging on us all of the time. We are creatures of the whole—of Earth, our region, our culture, our community, our family, our body, our brain, and our mind. How we treat any one of them always comes back to us as a sure sign of how we regard (or disregard) ourselves.

Resolved 5:  It is good to remember that consciousness is autobiographical. The history of any one person represents the history of a good portion of the Earth, including plants, animals, watersheds, and cultural communities.

Resolved 6:   Too, our every conscious act reflects our state of mind, which in turn affects every layer we are embedded within. In acting for ourselves, we act for our families, communities, and the living Earth as a whole. We are made of Earth stuff, and can’t help enacting it every day of our lives.

Resolved 7:   Where consciousness is, unconsciousness is not far away. In a very real sense, the goal of consciousness is twofold: 1) to solve problems that affect our survival, and 2) to build facility in solving similar problems so we don’t have to work so hard next time we face a similar situation. That’s why high school English teachers assign term papers, so in college and at work we don’t find writing reports as daunting as we did the first time. In that sense, the role of consciousness is to convert the stages of a complex project into an automatic (that is, unconscious) routine in order to save time, energy, and a great deal of worry. As William James put it in 1890:

We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work (Principles of Psychology, page 122, italics deleted).

Resolved 8:   Regard the history of human works as a reflection of the history of human consciousness. Every work of the human hand is a work of the mind before that. We are revealed to the world, not by good intentions, but by what we plan and bring about. Action suited to our life situation is the goal of consciousness. Nothing can have more survival value than that. Growing rice, corn, wheat, and other grains is an act of will. Milling them into flour is an act of will. Baking bread is an act of will. All so we can break bread together and be grateful to be alive and receive the gifts of the Earth. Poems and songs serve the same end.

Resolved 9:   Beware the powerful, for they are out to shape our endeavors and our minds to their advantage. Buy this, they tell us; Do that; Vote as we tell you; Trust us, we are your friends. All the rest of us need to do is retire our minds and let them make our decisions for us. Those who control our culture create an infrastructure allowing them to think for us and control our minds. Their goal is to be alive in our stead, to steal our life’s energy so that we must work for them, not ourselves. Free will is the prerogative of the arrogant. Our job (they tell us) is to obey. When the infrastructure of our minds bears their trademark—and it amazes me how often that is true—we are lost to ourselves. Freedom is freedom to think for oneself. To surrender that privilege (it is no inherent right) is to surrender to slavery on behalf of The Controllers, who are happy to co-opt our privilege. Fox News, for example, is not just standing by but actively reaching into our brains to implant its alien new world. As Eric Alterman writes in The Nation of November 9 (page 10):

Fox is not a news organization; it is a propaganda outlet, and an extremist one at that. Is it any wonder that according to survey after survey, Fox News viewers are among the worst informed Americans when it comes to politics, despite their obsessive interest? A recent study by Democracy Corps finds that this audience believes “Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives,” with the ultimate goal of “the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.”

The scary thing is that in our own little world, we are the powerful, and it is ourselves we must beware lest we mistake the way the world seems for the way the world really is. Irony of ironies, our own values determine what kind of world we discover around us. We paint that world to our liking, or more often, disliking. Cultural values—religious, political, economic, military, social—make us who we are and set how we act and react. Yet our values are invisible to ourselves and, instead of reflecting how we were raised and our earlier experiences, seem to be properties of the world itself. This tragic error is the root cause of the misjudgments rampant in today’s world. We blame others for our disaffection, and determine to eliminate them as the “cause” of our discomfort.

Resolved 10:   In order to understand consciousness, look to the culture in which it is immersed. And vice versa, to understand culture, study the consciousness of one who is embroiled in it. It is difficult to tell where culture leaves off and consciousness begins. The language we speak is the one we are born to. The gestures we make, the tools we use, the work we do, the manners and ways we take into our personal selves as our very own—are cultural in origin. Every member of a particular culture or subculture shares in similar repertoires of values, and is apt to express some variation on those values. The ways we prepare food, eat, dress, dance, entertain ourselves, make love—are ours largely through imitating or learning from others. We are distinctly ourselves, yet at the same time suppress our uniqueness in order to resemble our companions. We personally exemplify the ways of our culture in almost everything we do, think, and believe. At the same time, we contribute our uniqueness to the texture that makes our culture what it is. It is of us, we are of it. Loops of engagement carry us into the cultural world, and the cultural world into us. The reality we find is an extension of our conscious life; the two feed into each other as if parts of an endless Mobius band feeding into itself. Religion gives us our cultural god, who we then make responsible for creating the natural Earth, which clearly emerged billions of years before anything like culture existed in the human mind. Strange business, yet business as usual because we don’t discriminate very well between the cultural and the natural—between what we make happen and what makes us happen in the first place.

Resolved 11:   Finally, be clear that the basis of good and evil is in us, not the world. Our memories come in two sorts, those giving us pleasure and those causing pain. We have soothing dreams, and nightmares. Our feelings come in pairs of opposites: happiness/sadness, love/hate, confidence/fear, triumph/failure, and all the rest. Our minds color everything that happens either positively or negatively, making sure that whatever happens, we remember it for better or for worse. The world is the world, its seeming goodness or badness depending on how we seize it and take it into ourselves. Similarly, integration and differentiation are built into consciousness—putting things together or taking them apart. Induction and deduction are aspects of mind, moving from the sensory, specific, concrete, and detailed toward the conceptual, generic, abstract, and schematic—and back the other way. And we distinguish between chords and melodies because the qualities of simultaneity and succession are built into our sensory apparatus. Too, relative motions in the world are told by the brain, which for survival’s sake struggles to distinguish personal motions from those of others, the difficulty being that sometimes it’s ours, sometimes the others’, and sometimes both are moving at the same time. Dancing is possible because there’s a beat to the music, and both partners key their moves to that rhythm. Without such a frame of reference, the brain searches for clues to help it decide how to act when everything, for whatever reason, is in flux. We may think it trivial to distinguish our own motions from those of other objects and beings, but if you’ve ever sat in a railway car and compared the relative motion of your car and the one on the track next to you without being able to tell which train is moving, then you’ve had the giddy experience of (your brain) not being able to say whether you are moving ahead (without a giveaway jolt) or the other is silently sliding to the rear.

Reverting to my earlier metaphor, it’s not the hand we are dealt that determines our fate, but how we choose to play it. Consciousness is as consciousness does—as we make it happen. Up till now, those thought to understand how consciousness works have tended to use that knowledge for their personal advancement. Think politics, education, advertising, public relations—think John B. Watson, inventor of behaviorism. It is crucial that the workings of consciousness become widely studied and eventually known, so enabling people everywhere to act advisedly on their own—and their common culture’s—behalf.

Consciousness of Nature