Reflection 176: Heart Rot

January 28, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If one size fits all, then everybody can wear the same hat. If one medium of exchange works for all, then everybody can work for the same dollar, and spend the same dollar. With the result, as Jaron Lanier puts it regarding advertising on the Web:

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless (“The Serfdom of Crowds,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2010, page 19, from You are Not a Gadget, Knopf, 2010).

Instead of thinking for ourselves, we go shopping as we are conned into doing for our own good. So much for biological values and survival. Our role as we see it is to serve the global economy in the virtual money game it has become. Where once we would employ consciousness on behalf of personal sex-reproduction-family, eating, drinking, shelter, safety, companionship, learning, skill-building, etc., now we roll-over for those who get us hooked and support our nasty habit, going through the motions of pretending to use our minds, which now passes for a lifestyle of fake purposefulness (or let’s just pretend).

Trees are subject to a fungal infection that weakens or destroys their central core. The condition is called heart rot. People suffer from it as well, but from a different cause—being overly comfortable. When we finally “have it made,” we lose our edge and wander in Brownian motion wondering what to buy next. Hyper-sufficiency short-circuits our biological motivations (such as those listed above). What matters most is shopping, consuming, possessing, and living well. When that fungus strikes a nation, the population at large attempts to make a living by investing other people’s money in stocks, startups, real estate, mortgages, crime—whatever requires minimal effort to make the most profit at least risk.

Now it’s cap-and-trade, or you cap and I trade: I promise not to make more money than you, unless I can convince you and a thousand others that it’s your lot to stay as far below the poverty line as I can fly above it. Think capitalism and the two-class society. The Industrial Revolution was the engine for that line of reasoning, largely through exploitation of the so-called laws of thermodynamics in the instance of steam engines, locomotives, electrical power generation, internal-combustion engines, weaponry, and later, computers, the Internet, cell phones, and related technology:

The limitations of organic human memory and calculation put a cap on the intricacies of self-delusion. In finance, the rise of computer-assisted hedge funds and similar operations has turned capitalism into a search engine. You tend the engine in the computing cloud, and it searches for money. In the past, an investor had to be able to understand at least something about what an investment would actually accomplish. No longer. There are now so many layers of abstraction between the elite investor and actual events that he no longer has any concept of what is actually being done as a result of his investments (same source, page 16).

The challenge of global warming is not in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions but figuring how to make the most money from a global catastrophe by betting against our own fate. We have reached Nirvana, effectively becoming disconnected from the myriad natural processes and ecosystems that sponsor our continued existence on Earth. In the ultimate (fatal) sense, we are rotten at the core.

Does that matter? Or is it just another cell in the great database of life? I say it matters utterly and absolutely. Our Faustian bargain is for as many as can to game the system for as much as we can as long as we can, at which point Mephistopheles takes all:

The central faith embedded in Web technologies whereby users not only consume information but widely generate it is the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature. The designs guided by this perverse kind of faith leave people in the shadows. Computers will soon get so big and fast, and the Internet so rich with information, that people will be obsolete, either left behind like the characters in Rapture novels or subsumed into some cyber-superhuman something (same source, page 15).

Our current ethos falls somewhere between seeing numbness as a virtue for the majority, with fanaticism reserved to a driven elite. If you haven’t made your first million by twenty and billion by thirty, you might as well quit. Today, that counts as thinking. The rich are too comfortable to care, the poor too weak to fight back. We put our money—not our bodies, not our consciousness—where our values are. With the result that, as far as we’re concerned, money is all, life nothing. We make a show of sending money to Haiti after the earthquake, not before, when the U.S. built a record of siding with one corrupt dictator after another in repressing the people. Regarding Cuba, Howard Zinn writes:

Americans began taking over railroad, mine, and sugar properties when the [Spanish-American] war ended. In a few years, $30 million of American capital was invested. United fruit moved into the Cuban sugar industry. It bought 1,900,000 acres of land for about twenty cents an acre. The American Tobacco Company arrived. By the end of the occupation, in 1901, [Philip] Foner estimates that at least 80 percent of the export of Cuba’s minerals were in American hands, mostly Bethlehem Steel (A People’ History of the United States, page 303).

The CIA not only tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, but in a clandestine operation in 1971, it used swine fever virus as a weapon against Cuba, leading to the slaughter of half a million pigs (Zinn, page 542f.). Ever furthering the financial interests of its industries, the U.S. has long viewed the Caribbean as its territory, never hesitating to punish the locals in foisting its economic agenda upon them. Now we regard the Internet as ours, and are determined to make it pay—even if it means the death of newspapers, magazines, thought, conscience, or consciousness itself.

Finally, let me make one thing perfectly clear: these are not bad times. That is passing the buck. It is we who are acting badly by expecting to live on too grand a scale, consuming more than our share of so-called natural resources, far longer than we deserve, regardless of the cost to others and the planet we all share together. Our collective appetites and arrogance are not only wasting our culture’s potential for living within its means, but spoiling the Earth for all living beings. In that sense, we have become fanatics both mindless and heartless. Our headstones, if any, might well read:

The Buck Stops Here

(Or Would Have


If  Only We’d

Taken It To Heart).

Grave Marker


(Copyright © 2010)

On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Haiti was ruined by an earthquake in ten seconds. There were no winners, only losers. For nine years, the U.S. has been waging war against the very Jahadis it helped to create during the Cold War, and the Taliban who gave them a toehold in Afghanistan. Again, no winners, only losers. Looking ahead, in fifty years low-lying shores on every continent will bear scars inflicted by rising seas, upland areas suffer droughts and massive extinctions. Devastation will be the rule, not the exception. Over the long- or short-term, every unique life leads to the same end—in each case unknown. There is no way to evade personal ruin. Life will invariably cease, cells disintegrate. No winners, only losers, unless . . . .

For such minds as can grasp this inescapable scenario, there is only one way to respond: Act at all times in such a way to create as many islands and oases of order, compassion, and social justice as possible to offset the inevitable. Otherwise, the miracle of life has no meaning, or is at best a forlorn hope.

Beset by, and causing, devastation, we live fleetingly in denial, pretending we can sidestep our fate, believing in life after death, the healing power of personal wealth, that deeds can bestow immortality, that death can be deterred, outrun, or defeated. All of which sap our will for doing good rather than simply answering the roll for as long as we can when our name is called.

Living as long as we can is not a good in itself. It’s what we accomplish—what we actually do—in whatever time we are allowed that really matters. What we do for those we leave behind. The certainty of moving from the column of the living to the dead is, in fact, not only our fate but our greatest gift. The tragedy in Haiti is not that life is cut short but, in addition to suffering, that there is no pattern to which people are felled: children, adults, and the aged are equally susceptible. That, together with the violent nature of each death and the utter lack of help, produces chaos, the very opposite of social order. We saw lesser versions in the felling of the Twin Towers, looting of Iraq in the calm after the initial assault, and in New Orleans during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina.

In better days, mortality is our greatest strength because it frames each day as an opportunity, not a time to endure. It can motivate us to get off our butts and do something positive with whatever skills and energy we can muster on the spot. If death cannot be avoided, we are wise to make the most of what little time we have. Truism, yes, but a compelling one. None packs greater punch. Go for it, live each day to the max! Later is not good enough; now is my time to engage and to act. Not for self because self is invariably a dead end, but for those left behind. For the thread of life that survives us, not our narrow little life.

Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, said, “Think globally, act locally.” I add to that, Shape eternity, act in the now. Those who look ahead to consorting with forty virgins in paradise, or sitting on a cloud sipping margaritas, are committing the ultimate category error. Death is the end of consciousness as we know it, the absolute end. All else is myth, fantasy, or delusion. The test of our deeds is the world that lives after us. That is basic Darwinism. The measure of our success is the life (in the largest sense) we make possible. Not only in our genetic line, but in the natural conditions within which it survives. If we steal Earth’s wealth for ourselves today, mere money will not provide for our descendants tomorrow. The meaning or import of mortality—the 100% certainty of our end—is gauged by the living potential we are to leave, not the resources we take unto ourselves. Money in stocks or the bank is life converted to dead notes. It stands for consumption and death, not survival.

Consciousness is a sure sign of life, the realization of biologically-derived human values (reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, safety, etc.) through actions appropriate to life-giving surroundings. For the self, life is a matter of giving away, not taking from others. That is, it promotes authentic possibilities for action—actions that do not limit life’s choices tomorrow, but maintain or expand them. Acting in the now with eternity in mind is called stewardship. The Na’vi in Avatar live (if fictional creatures can be said to live) in that realization. More accurately, they represent that realization in James Cameron’s consciousness. Jahadi suicide bombers do just the opposite by destroying the possibilities of even their own lives and as many infidels as they can ruin along with themselves.

Now is my time on Earth, my time to live, my time to build a future for all life consciously and deliberately. I don’t have answers to many of the riddles and contradictions life throws at me, but collectively, cumulatively, we can share some few of those answers among us. Each can contribute her coherent actions to the body of the whole, and all draw wisdom and appreciation from that whole as needed. Give-and-take is the nature of our engagement on Earth. An engagement that will come to a definite end. Period. End of life. Maybe eight minutes from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty-three years. The point is not to obsess over but to deal with that certainty by building a life for ourselves, for those we love, for those we don’t know, and all members of other species. Then, when smitten, we will at least have done our best by Earth and its passengers for the long haul.

Which is far different from the life capitalistic assumptions and thinking would have us live. Capitalism is a farce, a heavy-handed caricature or cartoon of how to get ahead in life. It is drawn by the asset-rich to lure the asset-poor into their employ. It is a class-based system, dividing rather than uniting us. We now think of our lives in terms of the jobs we are offered rather than how we treat other people and other species through our stewardship practices. Sure, we get good at what we do, and earn money in the process, but that is not why we’re here. We are not born warriors, mechanics, or seamstresses, we are born Earthlings who must steward their gifts if they are to survive. We are meant to accrue an understanding of Earth’s truths, not wealth in and for itself. We are meant to act positively on behalf of life itself, not negatively for self alone. We are meant to create organic order, not the mechanized chaos we do by waging wars around the globe—as if that furthered the interests of life in any way whatsoever. There are no such things as natural resources meant for our taking; that is a fundamental category error. Consciousness is an emergent aspect of life itself, a self-contained guidance system. That, our bodies, surrounding communities, and natural environments are what we are given to work with and make the most of where we are. Now, not later on.

What I am trying to say is that ruined hope for a better future is a more accurate measure of any disaster than property losses or body counts. Hope lives in human consciousness as an urge toward a brighter light ahead. True wealth tells the capacity for hope based on possibilities for constructive action in today’s world. Husbandry and stewardship create hope; monetary wealth devastates hope through possibilities removed from the commons. Haiti lying in ruin from a shift in tectonic plates is tantamount to Iraq and Afghanistan lying in ruin from America flaunting its military might. We could not have prevented the one, but could have the others by holding eternity in mind. By making the most of our individual gifts rather than the least through flexing our military-industrial capacity for inflicting devastation and despair. Consciousness is given us as a gift; unfortunately the instruction manual—our living habitat or environment—is now largely made over by us, leaving us separated not only from nature but our own gift for life. With the result we are dead before our time, carrying on, true—but doing so ideologically, not weighing the moment and engaging the living Earth instead of our rote and sorry depiction of it.

Earth is rocked by enough natural disasters as it is without humanity inflicting additional devastation of its own devising. What we need is more compassion, sharing, healing, and hope such as are conveyed by our heritage of survival, and enabled by awareness of our common Earthling predicament. Taking the long view, keeping Earth’s evolving, biological eternity in mind, equips us to cope with natural disasters when they come upon us. That way we work with one another rather than against by taking more than our share, adding our small effort, heightening the possibility that, with or without us, life on Earth just may have a future.



(Copyright © 2010)

My daily routine includes going to the post office to get my mail. At some point along the way I anticipate what might be waiting behind the window of box 585. I expect some kind of assortment made up of bills, appeals for money, fliers, catalogs, magazines, announcements, and maybe an actual letter. Since I can’t know for sure what I will find, or even if I’ll find anything, my expectations tend to be vague and low key—that is, not very exciting.

Entering the door of the post office, I see my box straight ahead. Immediately I can tell if something’s in it or not. Sometimes it’s so crammed I can’t see through to the canvas carts. That means magazines or catalogs. Most days I can’t tell if it’s The New Yorker waiting for me or The Nation. More often a few envelopes slant at an angle upper left corner to lower right, probably bills. Maybe FairPoint bill or notice from the New England Fisheries Management Council. I dial my combination—then all is revealed. Today’s mail: One letter—oops! overdrawn at the bank; “Registered Documents Enclosed,” another dunning from the DNC; Christian Science Monitor—Send No Money subscription offer; 2009 Maine Resident Individual Income Tax Booklet; Ben Meadows field research catalog thicker than the phone book. That’s how today’s cautious expectations are fulfilled. My mailbox is a placeholder for such transactions.

This non-drama is fully funded by my personal consciousness. Expectancy is the key. To get me out the door, consciousness has to move me to set a goal and act decisively. It tells me my survival and contentment depend on making a trip to the post office. Anticipation just above the subliminal level keeps me going. Things pick up when I can tell something’s in my box. Then abstract motivation switches to concrete fulfillment as I shuffle through the pile. Sort, sort; toss, toss, stuff in pocket. This is how my loop of engagement works, me casting my abstract expectations on the world, the world giving me back today’s mail to riffle through at the post office. The trick is that my expectations are a kind of summary of such experiences in the past, so are necessarily conceptual more than sensory. But that changes when I open the little door to get my mail. Then hands-on sensory experience takes over, and my expectations are fulfilled more or less in the here and now of the post office lobby.

I think of myself as living in real time, but I seldom am. Often past experience takes over and I dwell in the twilight zone of memory. Or I extrapolate from that zone in trying to visualize what the future will bring. And briefly, as in the lobby, I match past concepts to sensory percepts in the present, categorizing the sensory now in terms of the conceptual past. Conscious-ness is the time machine that lets me do that—switch back and forth. And it is consciousness that fools me into thinking I’m aware of the world around me all the time when, in fact, I keep moving between abstract memories, concrete sensory traffic, and abstract projections into what I think of as the future but is really the state of my mind at the moment. The switching is done so fast—on a scale of milliseconds rather than minutes or hours—I don’t even notice the abrupt seams in what I believe to be my uninterrupted stream of consciousness.

Everyday consciousness is far more complicated than we often think. It is a herky-jerky paste-up job, a montage, not an even flow. In Reflection 159: Stop the Press!, I tried to show how an instant recollection of an empty milk bottle changed my life, or at least that one trip to the trash room. Characteristically, I move in and out of focus in relation to my immediate environment. It comes and it goes. Remembering some little thing puts my immediate plans in the shadows. And an overdose of sameness promotes a hunger for stimulation; I come, I see, I move on. And what surprises me is not so much the time travel as the ever-shifting level of attention to detail as it drifts between concrete sensory perception, abstracts from memory, and vague plans for some kind of future. The three time zones are rendered with varying degrees of detail—and I generally don’t even notice the difference.

When we switch too fast under stress, or rely too heavily on preconceived notions, we are apt to make category errors that misrepresent our pasts in the now, or distort current percep-tions in relation to what we can recall in the instant. The clip-art kitty I “saw” when a hinge squeaked and I jumped up to avoid stepping on the tail of a nonexistent cat (Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat) is an example of my confounding a hinge squeak in the present with an imaginary concept of a yeowling feline from the past—in a pastiche that seemed real at the time. This is an out-and-out category error, accounting for a sound by dredging up a preposterous fantasy. I was there and that’s exactly what I did.

When early scientists did not understand the nature of fire, they concocted the concept of phlogiston to account for the source of a flame. It was thought to be the (fictional) impurity phlogiston that burned when released. People didn’t know any better, so a mythical conceptual category had to be custom fitted to the sensory facts. A concept is a placeholder for the sorts of sensory experiences having relevance to our particular outlooks, motives, and values. In a given situation, concepts guide and shape our expectancy until they are fulfilled by specific details provided by the occasion. Concepts are what we look for; percepts are what we actually get. We no longer look for signs of phlogiston. We’ve learned to look for rapid oxidation instead.

Humor operates on a similar plan: it sets up a pregnant situation, creating a kind of expectant tension, which is fulfilled by a punch line that sidesteps our anticipation. Humor depends on category errors or misconceptions leading us astray, only to be set right by the surprising but non-threatening solution to a situation or riddle—like the magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. The punch line of a joke fulfills the humorous situation with a novel flourish. We didn’t see it coming, so laugh with glee, a sure sign of relaxed tension. When we take matters seriously, surprise endings are heresy, so are not allowed.

It is written: God created the universe.

The universe currently exists.

Therefore, God must also exist,

Making whatever happens, happen.

That is basically Osama bin Laden’s point regarding Allah in his “Letter to America” I referred to in my last post. True believers will win against the infidels because they are agents of Allah, who will see that it happen. If you don’t see the humor or irony in the initial assumption’s cropping up in the conclusion as if derived from the evidence, this blog probably isn’t for you. That’s the kind of trouble consciousness gets us into by not distinguishing between the level of detail in concepts and percepts. As my mailbox stands ready to receive its contents on any given day, concepts are mental boxes waiting to be filled by specific sensory details, fleshed-out or embodied, as it were, mythically if not factually. However you put it, concepts are empty containers until given sensory content to substantiate or fulfill them on particular occasions. To mismatch the two is to create category errors, which we mortals are prone to doing all the time.

To take such convenient fictions as entropy, inertia, gravity, evil, sin, Satan, phlogiston, probability, or God herself as explanations for specific events is to switch from one level of consciousness to another midstream without knowing. Resident in the human mind, God is a category error waiting to happen again and again. We have the word; it must label something out there in the world, or so we believe. When concepts in set minds forcefully drive experience, the world is remade according to ideology, as if personal belief could be mapped onto the outer world of sensory events, taming it, cutting it down to the size of the mind rather than allowing the mind to grow by accommodating to actual experience. Creationism and theocracies are ample proof that we are prone to forcing ourselves on the Earth rather than attending to what the master teacher has to show us.

Consciousness is given us so we can learn from experience and act appropriately in a world full of pitfalls and dangers. But we have increasingly come to put that process in reverse, using consciousness to adjust the world to our preferences. If the world doesn’t conform to our idea of what it should be, we whip it into shape by changing the world to our liking, rearranging it so incoming percepts conform to conceptual expectations we already have in mind. Instead of immersing our wild bodies in the flow of wild events—instead of learning the ways of the world—we domesticate the world by breaking it to our beliefs, forcing it to live up to our expectations and specifications. Beyond hubris, that leads to the end of the world as our ancestors once knew it. In the instance of my post office box, it leads to junk mail and endless solicitations for money.

Concepts and percepts can only complement or complete one another; they are not causally related. They arise from different sources of experience, much as my mailbox cannot account for the mail it contains. It gives that mail a place where I can get at it, but there is no causal agency or relationship between them. Such mental slight of hand would be a category error, no matter how much I might want it to explain why things happen as they do. But I can’t blame my mailbox for the bills it contains. The causal agent is the hand of the postal employee who sorts the mail and inserts it into my box, and behind her, those who pay postage to have access to my mind and bank account.

In the realm of the conscious mind, expectation, wishful thinking, and knowing about things share a similar low level of specificity, that is, abstraction. Which is very different from the level on which sensory events actually happen, the level of immediate sensory experience. Even the concept of the color red is colorless until exemplified. Just as my having a mailbox does not imply there is any mail in it, the concept “red” is a kind of code that acknowledges that red exists without providing an example or explaining how the eye sees it. It is more a particular wavelength or energy level, an idea in the mind. The concept of a circle is not a circle; it is more the recipe for generating a circle if you have a compass or a stake in the ground and piece of string. The concept of an automobile is neither Honda nor Chevrolet, though such brands may exemplify the concept. The concept honey cannot elicit the taste—that takes molecules on the tongue. The concept peace cannot calm a battlefield. Ideas are built from concepts in memory; things are built from sensory phenomena in perception. Joined together, related, or balanced as a conscious proposition, memorial concept with existential percept, we can eat strawberry shortcake (sensory fulfillment) for dessert (anticipatory concept), or design a mousetrap perhaps better than the ones we are familiar with. I can even reach into my mailbox and get my mail. But uncoupled and apart, one remains an empty idea, the other an uncategorized percept about which almost nothing is known.

Jokes come in categories: men, women, sex, lawyers, sports, animals, religion, ethnic/national, elevators, etc., or simple challenges such as who?, what?, when?, where?, how?, why? A conceptual situation is set up, creating tension, which the punch line resolves in a specific yet surprising sensory payoff, the release of tension eliciting a smile or laugh, usually from an audience of a particular age or level of experience:

Who was that gentleman I saw you with last night? That was no gentleman, that was my husband.

What do snowmen eat for breakfast? Snowflakes.

Where do snowmen keep their money? In a snow bank.

You know you’re from New York when you think the major food groups are Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Indian.

How do you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it.

Why do hummingbirds hum? They don’t know the words.

Real life situation: Yesterday I came across a group of eight people in a knot trying to figure out how to move a woman in a wheelchair from an icy sidewalk into the passenger seat of a car at the curb. A voice apologized for blocking the sidewalk. Stepping into the street to get around, I asked: “How many people does it take . . . ?” Everybody laughed, the tension eased. They saw I wasn’t put out.

The only mailbox joke I know is from a ten-year-old, so I’ll leave you with that: What do you call a man who sits in your mailbox? Bill.

PO Box 96


(Copyright © 2010)

Once, when I was a kid, I was spanked smartly on bare buns with a canvas stretcher (my mother was a painter) and told “Never to say that again!” for pinning my little brother to the floor and yelling, “I’ll murder you,” for his having knocked down the impressive tower I’d built with my blocks. Mother didn’t care about the wrecked tower, only about my angry words. Somewhere in there was a message I’ve remem-bered to this day.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been to three dermatologists for treatment of two different rashes. Each doctor scoped my chest, arms, shoulders, back, and prescribed some high-priced lotion-cream-ointment to rub on my skin. I spent several thousand dollars buying one brand after another, and none of them worked. I kept asking what caused such punishing rashes, and never got a straight answer. When the first dermatologist got results of a biopsy back, he told me I had a diagnosis of Dermatitis herpetiformis. What causes that? I asked. “A substance that collects in your skin” I was told, and he prescribed a new lotion from Texas that cost over $100 a tube. I went to another dermatologist for a second diagnosis, and he gave me a prescription for a different tube of goo, which I never filled. Years later, when I had access to the Web, I did a WebCrawl for Dermatitis herpetiformis, and the first hit on St. John’s University told me it was a symptom of celiac disease.

Last year, after not eating wheat-rye-barley for over ten years, I had a bright red rash over much of my body, and a third dermatologist told me I had eczema due to low humidity indoors in winter, and he started me on another course of topical ointments. He said I should get a humidifier. One machine didn’t have any effect, so I bought another and ran them both, one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom. I lived with the two whirring motors for several months, but the rash raged on. Until I looked eczema up on Wikipedia, and found a list of causes for such rashes, the fourth being food allergies, particularly to nuts. I’d been eating a lot of cashews, so I stopped. In two days the excruciating rash was gone; my skin faded from bright red to its usual pallor.

The message I got was that my doctors were more interested in treating symptoms than underlying causes, and in seeing multiple patients at a time, each patiently waiting in a confining little room for the good doctor’s attention, which amounted to about seven minutes when it came. Treating symptom as the disease is a fundamental category error which, in my limited experience, is common practice among dermatologists.

Which brings me to September 11, 2001, the ultimate example of treating a symptom and not the underlying disease, in that we staged two wars and caused undue havoc in the Islamic world rather than address the social distress that led to attacks in New York and Washington in the first place. Turning the sights of our cumbrous military machine on Iraq, we avenged the deaths of some three thousand civilian workers with the deaths of 4,373 of our own troops, the wounding of twenty times that many, and estimated deaths of Iraqi civilians of over a million, not to mention those displaced from their homes. Crashing planes into buildings was not the disease itself but one symptom of the disease, along with attacks on the USS Cole, American embassies, transportation hubs in London and Madrid, and other signs of distress.

The original diagnosis was delivered by Osama bin Laden in his “letter to America,” translated from Arabic into English in The Observer (now owned by The Guardian) of Sunday, Nov. 24, 2002. It is understandable that we dismissed that letter and focused wholly on the devastation and pain of 9-11. Under-standable, but not necessarily wise. We chose to react militarily, not to listen in order to learn what was happening in spheres of consciousness other than our own. Not that bin Laden’s letter provided any justification for the attacks of 9-11. But it did reveal where he was coming from at the time, and how he perceived America’s presence in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in general. Instead of sitting down with those he claimed to represent and going over his points one at a time, we quickly counterattacked in Afghanistan, and preemptively attacked Iraq on our own authority, reducing our assertive presence in the world to bin Laden’s level of outrage. And beyond that, spreading the symptoms of social unrest through further unjust attacks, blind to our own role in stirring up international resentment and retaliation. Bin Laden handily won the shock-and-awe contest in leveling the Twin Towers and scoring against the Pentagon, but we outdid him in leveling Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries each with roughly a tenth of the current U.S. population, bringing both to their knees as client states, in Iraq’s case, hoping to get dibs on its coveted resources for ourselves.

Bin Laden’s justified his letter to America within a self-righteous framework of Islamic belief, guaranteeing that Jews and Christians would dismiss it. As would any secular state. He used threats of violent jihad against infidels in insisting on the rightness of his cause. Clearly, he is no diplomat, and beyond reach of any diplomat. Which is not only sad but pathetic in that many of the points he makes deserve consideration throughout the multicultural world of today. His are fighting words, and in that sense, he got what he asked for.

But apart from his framework of belief, many of his words rang true if there can be any such such thing as international justice. He sided with the Palestinians as “pure Arabs and original Semites” in having their country yanked out from under them. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged. You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.” He also sided with Somalis, Chechens, Kashmiris, and Lebanese. He smarted at foreign governments opposing establishment of Shariah (traditional Islamic law), admitting “a taste of humiliation” and fear. And he saw America backing the suppression of these Islamic peoples, and supporting Israel across the board. As I have said in this blog, fear often opens onto anger, hostility, and aggression. Which is exactly the situation bin Laden felt he was in. A caged tiger, he stretched his claws through the bars, mauling whatever flesh he could reach.

He decried America’s lusting after Arab oil, and its military and industrial presence in his homeland “to protect the security of the Jews and to ensure the continuity of your pillage of our treasures.” He saw sanctions against Iraq as killing 1.5 million Iraqi children.

Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge. Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her to live in security and peace?!!

Eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth, 9-11 was bin Laden’s way of avenging America’s wrongs against the people he identifies with by attacking American civilians as the ones “who chose their government by way of their own free will.”

The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq. These tax dollars are given to Israel for it to continue to attack us and penetrate our lands. So the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us.

His solution was, first, to call all Americans to Islam. Through conversion, they would come “to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.” He advised us to stop supporting Israel, to get out of Arab lands, not to interfere in Middle Eastern politics, and so on. The alternative he gave was war with what he called “the Islamic Nation” that “from the very core of its soul, despises your haughtiness and arrogance.”

All-in-all, not a very friendly or gracious letter, but certainly one that aptly characterized (from a certain perspective) the disease raging beneath the surface. And one offering proof that military action will never cure the the ills of the Middle East, which, after eight years, are now metastasizing—along with the free flow of weapons, ideas, and people—through every global artery.

I started this blog convinced that communication breakdowns between people reflected failures of human consciousness, and that the remedy is to be found within our minds, not on the shelf of any pharmacy or library, or within the pages of any military manual. Reading Osama bin Laden’s words in translation, I remain convinced his consciousness is skewed by his beliefs, and he and his heirs will be on the rampage until they attain peace in their thoughts. Till then, we can look forward to one jihad after another on every continent. For our part, as long as we have the lustful economic system that capitalism truly is, and the militant will to go to war against every people that sees us differently than we see ourselves, till that time arrives, we will aggravate others into opposing our will to supremacy and reluctance to take others’ views into account as being equally valid with our own.

It is a natural human trait to blame others for our troubles. That, I realize now, is our parents’ and education’s failure to deal seriously with what ails us instead of boosting the claim that we are a higher sort of being in comparison to others with ways and beliefs that differ from our own. What ails us is our own doing, resulting from not inquiring inwardly before asserting ourselves, backed by an arsenal of weaponry that not only gives us false courage but to boot makes us right. The planet is knee-deep in weapons these days, which makes every act of self-assertion likely to be dangerous. What we need is not more arms but better schools teaching the ways and pitfalls of consciousness. As it is, we are born to rightness, no matter what we believe. To a man and woman we are unique, but that does not make each one of us right. We are prisoners of our personal outlooks and perspectives.

It is a parent’s and educator’s job to reveal the wiles of consciousness in fooling us into making the basic category error of confounding our ways with universal truth. We claim all kinds of freedoms to assert ourselves this way or that, but what of the freedom to access truth through doubt and self-questioning? Through looking at what actually causes our symptoms instead of taking them for the whole show? What school or parent teaches that skill? No, we are all bin Ladens at heart—or in my world, all latent dermatologists—sure to be right from the get-go, looking for ways to assert our will rather than edge closer to truth.

Personal consciousness may sometimes be out to waylay us, but as I have said in recent posts, it can also be a master teacher if we will but listen in the quiet of our own minds to what it is trying to tell us. Survival depends on accurately assessing the situation we are in, and the next, and the one after that. The difficulty comes in not paying attention because we are distracted by other priorities, many laid on us by aggressive others who are truly furthering agendas of their own. And in not listening to ourselves because no one ever taught us how or put value on actually doing that.

Education has come to be whatever course of experience other people subject us to, not something we do for ourselves. In this blog I am trying to turn that way of learning on its head. Self-taught, I say, is best taught. And self-teaching takes intent listening to the still voice of consciousness, the most personal, accessible, and reliable road to truth—if ever the most difficult.

Maybe Inner Truth Looks Like This 


(Copyright © 2010)

I’d been a Signal Corps photographer in the Army. When I got out I went to work for a photo studio in Manhattan that took pictures for catalog houses like Sears Roebuck. The studio was really three studios, each with photographer (who adjusted lighting and clicked shutters), assistant photographer (who cocked shutters and changed 8×10 film holders), and stylist (who made clothes look good on thin models by taking tucks in back with clothespins). I learned early on that there were two classes of people, photographers and assistants; there was no way for an assistant to cross the barrier between them. Once an assistant, always an assistant.

Sensitive to such distinctions, I noticed that the janitor came to work in suit and tie, and carried his lunch in a briefcase. I figured he did it to show his kids he had an important job in the city. He’d arrive early, change his clothes, and get to work. What he really did was mop the floors. At the end of the day he’d reverse the process, put on the suit, and get on the elevator with an empty briefcase.

To simplify matters, I’ll say there are two kinds of people: doers and thinkers. Hands-on and minds-on. There are all manner of gradations in between, but the basic distinction still holds: labor and management, students and teachers, stage crew and talent. You can tell the difference by looking under fingernails, feeling calluses, noticing who shines his shoes, who wears overalls and who a tweed jacket. 

In Maine, there are fishermen who hold their catch in their hands, and then everybody else. Fishermen look like fishermen. They wear aprons, slickers, and boots, and get wet a lot. The others try to stay away from water and out of the rain if they can. Fishermen are doers. After all these years, they still work with their hands and speak basic English. Many of the rest of us type with our fingertips, work in cubicles, write endless reports, go to meetings, and speak jargon that sounds like a foreign language.

One of the chief reasons I am writing this blog is to figure out how hand workers and mind workers can come to a common understanding about managing natural resources (fish, clams, worms) to guarantee steady catches over the long term. I speak a lot about sustainability and stewardship, which are words labeling conceptual categories, not concrete items such as living lobsters or bags full of bait. Categories don’t smell like a mixture of herring, oil, and gasoline.

As kids we are all much the same, born with a few rudimentary skills centered on our mouths. We eventually learn to hold up our heads, look around, coordinate arms and fingers, and eventually walk. We all go through the play stage of learning how to use our hands. Then we go to school to learn how to use our minds, and that is supposed to lead us on the way out of childhood. Some of us end up putting everything into words and symbols, not coordinated motions. Or if we do practice fine motor skills, we take drum or violin lessons, color within the lines, and strive for neat handwriting. You can’t learn to fell trees in school, raise cattle, dig potatoes, catch lobsters or fish. And if that’s what you want to do in life, then you’re better off apprenticing to someone who does those things for a living. If you work hard enough, long enough, and pay attention, you’ll train your muscles to behave as you want to get the job done.

The classic put-down used to be:  If you can, do; if you can’t, teach. For some reason, our culture turns that around and puts a higher priority on teaching and mind work than doing and making things. While we know that the most important people in any school are the students, not teachers or administrators. The main thing with us seems to be not getting our clothes dirty, which is a sure sign of social status. No mucking out the barn for us. So we dutifully dress in blouses and button-down shirts, stand behind our counters or file into cubicles (much like desks in school), turn on the computer, and have at it, engaging our minds—and little else of our basic equipment such as muscles, senses, and personal judgment.

Broadly speaking, our culture creates two classes of people who can’t talk to each other very easily because their life experience is so different. What they do is so different. How they talk is so different. How they make themselves happen in the world is so different. How their minds work is so different. Either you’re a photographer or a photographer’s assistant, perhaps bringing your lunch in a briefcase or a brown paper bag.

So much for discriminating two sorts of people. In truth, even fishermen and cubicle dwellers are unique individuals, as are we all. The issue is, how do we learn to talk with one another in the spirit of democracy so we can work side-by-side for the good of all people and the one Earth we share in common? Where self-interest and competition split us apart, how do we put ourselves together again in order to deal effectively with dwindling resources, global warming, pollution, poverty, and overconsumption? Many of us seem to find it easier to stand apart, calling those we don’t agree with offensive names, than gather beneath a common banner.

That’s what language is for, but people on fishing boats and people in cubicles tend to develop dialects within their common language that require translation from one to the other. How do they make themselves clear when they meet face-to-face? How do they hear what the other is saying? That’s what schools are supposed to be for, but they are better at emphasizing individual differences than general commonalities. That’s because differences are concrete and recognizable while the commons is an abstract idea you can’t point your finger at. Differences are up-close and personal, while the commons is vague, fuzzy, and apt to be ideological or reduced to a caricature of itself (Uncle Sam, John Bull) or some kind of mascot. Where individuality is specific, unity is symbolic. It is easy to say, “No man is an island,” “God is love,” or “All are one,” but extremely difficult to put into practice. I know there are such places as Fiji, Timbuktu, and Ultima Thule, but I have a hard time picturing them in my mind; to me they are conceptual abstractions, like “objects,” “things,” “items,” “entities,” “geographical locations.”

If we learn and act best when we put our bodies where our values are, then when two people generally have their bodies in different places, to get along they have to shift their consciousness to the place where they meet in order to take the physical presence of the other into full account. If they speak from their customary locations (their respective Aways), they won’t get very far. It works better to acknowledge the other, and move on from there in small steps, always waiting for the other to catch up. Cooperating on a shared task or project makes a good beginning, both taking part in something they can do easily and well. I have seen women sitting in a circle, each spinning yarn or knitting, having a great time. Drinking coffee or eating a meal together might work, but I personally find it hard to talk and eat at the same time.

Once the ice is broken—and it may take some time—the real work can begin. Which is to include the other in your thoughts as you make yourself happen there and then in her presence. Inclusion is the first priority in any group process. Excluding the other is self-defeating if you have to work together toward a goal you both share. Such as sustainable harvests of natural resources, stewardship, or saving the Earth.

The trick is to identify a goal you both can agree on from your separate perspectives. The more specific a goal the better. It’s easy to say we are both human, or both love our children. It’s harder to bring it down to a personal level on which you can identify with each other in equally concrete and meaningful ways. Sharing your biological values might be one way to identify a goal you could work toward together, such as food, shelter, clothing, safety, health, companionship, community, cooperation, learning, and so on.

I once taught a summer workshop built around finding a common project that a diverse group of eighteen high school students (who had never met) could not only work on but finish together in six weeks. That was the summer Apollo astronauts first landed on the moon. Students decided to bring out a publication commemorating that event, each contributing to the overall project, in addition to being responsible for content and layout of one page. Within three days, animosity blossomed within the group, so I included addressing that in the lesson plan. I identified pairs of students who didn’t get along, and gave them the afternoon off, with the stipulations that they had to stay within five feet of each other the whole time, and report back how it went for both of them. Each of the nine pairs worked things out between them, many coming back best friends. Another exercise was for each student to do something with the class to prove they were alive (however they interpreted those instructions). One girl led us up to the roof of the three-story building, then left, locking the door. Being trapped together is a wonderful way to build group spirit. I can’t remember how we got down, but we were up there for several hours.

Thinking about how close those students were to one another at the end of the workshop, I identified facing a common challenge, humor, and respect for both originality and ability as key factors in binding the disparate students into a cohesive and productive group. Of course they were all volunteers, but there was no way they could tell what they were getting into when they signed up. The workshop was built around their unique contributions, but no one knew in advance what they might be.

How about having fishermen, researchers, shorefront property owners, wildlife watchers, and kayakers, for instance, join forces to produce a portrait of the part of the Maine coast they all share in common? Each could tell her own version of the story of that part of the coast as he knew it. Could that work? Not only would it provide a starting project, but it would serve as a reference ever after, a document of what actually happened. The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, does 15-week workshops in developing skills in writing, radio, and photography. As one student said: “15 weeks at Salt rearranged 80% of my brain. The person I was when I arrived at Salt was not the person I was when I left.” I think a bay-wide project of this nature could be a life-changing event, bringing people together instead of perpetuating the social divide between them.

Including the other in your loop of engagement with your personal surroundings seems an obvious place to begin working together toward a common understanding. Getting their body and your body in the same room together so you can interact in a safe location, engaging conscious minds with each other, starting to build a constructive relationship instead of trying to wear the other down. Two kinds of people? No, there are almost seven billion. Things happen only when a few gather together in mutual engagement. Then there is no limit to what they can do, no matter what the odds.

Two Lobsters


(Copyright © 2010)

Two weeks ago I got a phone call from a colleague asking if I would give a presentation at the January 14 meeting of the Maine Wildlife Society. He and I have worked together for over eight years on common projects, and share similar environmental values; I said I’d be glad to. He made a couple of suggestions about what he’d like me to cover, basically present a capsule history of projects we’ve worked on together in Taunton Bay estuary. I said I’d like to address the issue of trusting consciousness as a guide to how projects should go, and he said fine. Combining my interests with his, I came up with a rough sketch of a presentation, then set to work bringing it to life or, more accurately, bringing my life to it.

Day before yesterday, after wrestling for almost a week with what to include and what to leave out—ending up with a Rube Goldberg contraption that just didn’t work—I was extremely frustrated, and went to bed in low spirits. Next morning—yesterday—I woke up knowing exactly what I had to do to make it fully my presentation, not an awkward mockup of ideas from two different minds. I took the contraption I’d heaped together, got rid of thirty slides, rearranged the remaining slides in a wholly new sequence, added a few slides to emphasize points I wanted to make—and every slide fell into place. Eureka, I’d done it! Best PowerPoint I’d ever made.

What I’d actually done is trusted my unconsciousness to do the job for me while I was asleep. I showed that trust by paying attention to what was in my head when I woke up yesterday morning. It’s that first fifteen minutes of consciousness each day that I want to talk about in this post. It is precisely then that the actual connections between neuronal groups in my brain show what they’ve been up to during the night. In those first fifteen minutes when consciousness dawns each day, I have a unique opportunity to learn what is actually on my mind as a result of recent mental activity. If I set an alarm and rush to get ready for school or work, I don’t have time to pay attention to the most crucial messages I am likely to get all day. Messages from the parts of myself that make me the intuitively guided person I am meant by nature to be.

If I allow my consciousness to be steered by directives and reports stacked in my in-box at work, or a sequence of e-mails from other minds, or other people’s agendas, in such cases I lose touch with my own mind—and end up leading a life that is not fully my own. We’ve all been in that place, particularly rearing young children, and having to work at jobs largely for the paycheck and benefits. Those days behind me, I feel lucky to have the luxury of lying in bed listening to my own mind at 4:30 in the morning. That’s the most valuable part of my day that I don’t want to waste because it heads me into my day, a day of my own making under the existential circumstances I actually live with.

What came to me yesterday morning was a clear overview of what I’d been doing for the last twenty-four years of my life so that it actually made sense. Not as a random series of projects and events, but as a slow and steady working-out of what I have done in order to be myself in the particular place on Earth I have chosen to live. There in full sense-surround within my mind was revealed for the first time the saga of my being the person I am. It was my story and no one else’s. That’s what a few morning minutes of quietly attending to my own brain had on offer. My PowerPoint was to be an outward and visible sign of that inner vision, which I will summarize here as briefly as I can.

In keeping with my theme, I remember lying in bed in earlier days (before moving to Maine), my body sunk so low I hardly pushed up the covers—I barely existed, even to myself. I was the wrong person leading the wrong life in the wrong place. I couldn’t breathe; I was dying. I had to get out before the life was sucked out of me. [This was well before I knew I had celiac disease, and had had it my whole life.] The upshot was my fleeing to Maine—my mother’s homeland—to write my great book. I lived on a thirty-acre island my parents owned in undivided shares with two other families, in a cabin I’d built in the 1970s, and struggled to reinvent myself.

On Easter Sunday in 1987 I rowed across Taunton Bay to investigate the cloud of smoke I’d been watching for a week, every day shifting a little farther north. It looked like slash (piles of branches from felled trees) was burning, and I wanted to know why. I sensed that circumstances made me the only person who could see the smoke moving north—toward a productive eagle nest that had sent one, two, or three fledglings a year out over the bay for many years.

I found a developer and his crew running a road for a thirty-four-lot subdivision. He claimed not to know the course of the road went directly under the eagle nest. I walked 200 feet along Schoodic Overlook, 1987 the surveyor’s line—and there it was. You couldn’t miss it. I showed up at the planning board hearing on Schoodic Overlook subdivision. Seventeen spaghetti lots (long and thin to have acreage adequate to a summer home, and minimal shore-frontage to squeeze in as many lots as possible) bisected by the road, doubling the number of lots. Several didn’t have soils suitable for septic systems, so down-slope lotsSubdivision Nest pumped sewage uphill—in one case three lots feeding into one septic field. The nest was in lot 11, and an alternate nest built by the same pair of eagles was in a tall white pine on the shore of lot 9. Two eagle nests, the one on the shore producing three fledglings the year before. With surveying and woodswork going on around them, the eagles didn’t produce any eaglets in 1987. I joined with my cousin in opposing the subdivision, and when she dropped out, I went on alone. The development was approved, so I went to the appeals board, which voted I didn’t have standing. By then I had a pro-bono attorney, who filed in Superior Court. On the day that court ruled I did in fact have standing, a deal was announced by which The Nature Conservancy bought the land, enabling the developer to find a parcel with no resident eagles farther downeast, and the land was donated in the first Land for Maine’s Future grant (December 1988) to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to maintain as eagle breeding habitat.

Adrenalin pumping for months, I called a meeting of local residents in August 1987 to learn about starting a local land trust. The many who showed up decided to found Frenchman Bay Conservancy, which is thriving in much of Hancock County today. In opposing the subdivision, I got the reputation as being anti-development, so the next major event on the bay was a Penobscot Salmon Net Pen deliberate stealth operation to keep below my personal radar. In 1990, without any public notice, net pens for Atlantic salmon appeared in the bay courtesy of Penobscot Salmon Company in Franklin. I and others didn’t even know what they were. The entire operation was in place by then, the town colluding with the company to keep the project secret until it was a done deal. The operator’s plan was to cut the time it took to rear mature salmon by siting his pens in the sunny, sheltered, and unusually warm waters of Taunton Bay estuary on an outgoing summer tide. First came a hearing before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, at which I raised several issues regarding impacts on the bay. Again, I was cast with the opposition. The aquaculture operation was subsequently approved, the salmon put in the net pens to hasten their growth—only to die at the rate of 700 a day, killed by receding midsummer tides. Gearing up for the hearing, local residents founded Friends of Taunton Bay (FTB) “to organize citizens for the well-being of the bay and for its protection from all forms of degradation.” Recognizing that eelgrass provides both food and protective habitat for a great many estuarine species, I began a series of aerial overflights to produce a photographic record of the spread and density of eelgrass over the years, which I now conduct on an annual basis.

In 1999, when a replacement for the “Singing Bridge” over Taunton River on Route 1 (the open mesh deck hummed when cars crossed it) was in the works, the then president of Friends of Taunton Bay feared larger boats rigged for bottom dragging would enter the bay, putting eelgrass at risk. The old bridge Singing Bridge had a ten-foot clearance at high tide; the new bridge twice that amount. FTB presented testimony at a hearing before the state Marine Resources Committee in Augusta, asking that such vessels be banned. I presented slides ostensibly showing effects of dragging on eelgrass beds years before. The Maine Legislature voted for a dragging moratorium to sunset in New Bridge five years, and assigned the Department of Marine Resources the job of evaluating potential impacts of dragging on eelgrass in Taunton Bay. That led to an intense program of research looking at eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, juvenile fish, and related issues. My role in the assessment was to track horseshoe crabs to determine their seasonal locations in the bay, and the habitats they occupied. I also initiated a pilot project in collaborative bay management to explore what a localized use-management effort might look like for Taunton Bay.

The report of the Taunton Bay Assessment recommended continuation of the prohibition on unrestricted bottom dragging, and development of a science-based comprehensive resource management plan to sustain the ecological workings of the bay. The man who asked me to present at the upcoming Wildlife Society meeting had conducted the assessment and made those recommendations. The assessment report was presented to the committee that approved the moratorium, and the committee approved the recommended resource management plan, which included provision for a local group to advise the Commis-sioner of Marine Resources on harvesting of marine resources in Taunton Bay. I am one member of that advisory group. As a result, local bay management is a reality in Taunton Bay, a first in Maine, and as far as I know, in the nation.

Aside from being fully myself in doing these things, I have acted according to my lights, strengthening actively used synapses, diminishing underutilized others, changing connections in my brain and the nature of my mind—all by putting my body where my values are, and paying good attention to what my body and unconscious mind have to tell me. Not in so many words, but the messages are there when I wake up, like glass milk bottles used to show up on the back steps when I was growing up. Open the kitchen door and there they’d be.

Living through Schoodic Overlook subdivision, salmon aquaculture pens in the bay, the dragging moratorium, the assessment, the comprehensive resource management plan, the Taunton Bay advisory group—has made me who I am. Preparing to speak at public hearings,  and to act effectively in my local world, I have reinvented myself as the man I am today. We are all unique to begin with, and further refine our uniqueness by the particular actions we take and lives we lead. All made possible by our conscious and unconscious minds as they not only enable, but keep up with our ongoing engagements with the unique life worlds we inhabit.

From early electrical and radio days, we use the metaphor of “wiring” in talking about the complex neural networks of our brains as enablers of our actions and our minds. But that is too rigid an image, suggesting soldered connections that never change, and can’t change themselves. The brain is a biological system—the most complex object in the known universe—which no corporation has yet patented (though I am sure those days are coming). Our neurons are living cells which respond to the circumstances of their existence by strengthening or weakening their myriad interconnections, or forming new connections—or dying off if neglected. And it is our activity that determines the state of our minds, which in turn reflect what we actually do with our bodies. It is no accident my PowerPoint for the wildlife folks is based on the particular events I have been involved in for the last twenty-four years. It includes images of 12 invertebrates, 14 fish, 16 mammals, 50 people, and 54 birds, along with others of settings, habitats, plants, and charts I have dealt with—such dealings as I have grown into and interacted with in the recent course of my life.

Growing and interacting are better metaphors for the way our electro-chemical minds really work. Our cells either stay in touch, or drift apart. Consciousness is a hands-on operation, a matter of axons working with dendrites where they connect at synapses, preparing the way for ionic and chemical flows more fundamental than copper wires allow. It isn’t done for us; we do it ourselves. Unwittingly, yes, but willingly and even willfully through what we do in daily life. In truth, we invent ourselves as we go, both physically and mentally, by performing what we actually do in making a life for ourselves. Where our body is, the routines we go through—that is exactly what we learn. “You are what you eat” is true only for those who dedicate their lives to watching TV, videos, films, and other passive diversions. For the rest of us, we are what we do because doing is what structures our brains and our minds to do more of the same in the future—only better.

Before we get distracted by other concerns, fifteen minutes a day paying attention to what our most recent brain activity has accomplished overnight is all it takes to stay abreast of ourselves. We springboard higher and higher based on our cumulative mental activity as told by the changing connections in our brains. Our looping engagement with this place where we are on the Earth is the master teacher. That inner guide is far more compelling and effective than any author or professor. Instead of hitting the books, it is more rewarding to learn the lessons from what we did yesterday as revealed in the thoughts that greet us as we wake to a new day. Then, getting out of bed, we enter that day as new men and women better equipped to improve the lives we actually lead, not the lives others would have us lead for their benefit.

Unfurl like a squash blossom


(Copyright © 2010)

Excerpts from Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Earth Observations and Photography Experiment, July 1975. Object: To utilize the special capabilities of trained observers (American astronauts of the joint mission) in visually studying and photographing specific Earth features and dynamic phenomena. Personnel: Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton. From Farouk El-Baz, Astronaut Observations from the Apollo-Soyuz Mission, Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, Number 1, 1977.

Revolution 17. Slayton: That looks beautiful there. Just look at those clouds down there. Fantastic. . . . Stafford: There’s a bunch of plankton out there to the east. I can hardly see that from under it. Slayton: Yeah, sure, and you can see the tourists down there, Tom. Brand: I’m not sure I see plankton. I see bottom. . . . Brand: I don’t think it’s the time of year for plankton. It looks too cold down there. Stafford: It’s not there now. Brand: Oh, I see something. Okay, I’ve got one shot of some scum on the water. But it went by so fast, it looked more like trash to me. But we’ll see what it is later. It could be plankton. So much for New Zealand. (132f.)

Revolution 56. Slayton: There it is. Boy! Oh, great! . . . We got everything we want. Say, that stuff’s pretty . . . right there. Brand: See the pyramids? Slayton: Yeah! [laughter] Brand: My God! I think I did. I’ve got to get a map though. . . . Brand: Gosh, look at that! Look at that water. Slayton: I know where we’re supposed to be, but I’m not sure. We’re going too fast. . . . Slayton: Hey, that’s Israel right down there. There’s the Sea of Galilee . . . goddam. . . . Brand: . . . I think I might have seen the pyramids. And now I’ve got to see a picture or a layout of how the pyramids are laid out when we get back, but I saw two specks that might have been pyramids. (137)

Revolution 75/76. Stafford: We’re seeing the coast of Florida go past pretty fast. Capcom [Capsule Communicator]: You should be passing over actually the coast of Mexico there, and Florida should be coming up in just a few minutes. (144)

Revolution 80. Stafford: Dick, where are we at now? Are we heading across Africa? Capcom: No, you’re on ascending pass; you’re just crossing the coast of southwestern Australia. And then you’ll be, of course, crossing Indonesia. Then you’ll get another long pass over the western Pacific. (149)

The astronauts were traveling as such high speed, features on the Earth were visible for only seconds at a time. It is little wonder they were often unsure where they were or what they were looking at. Though they had been trained as competent observers, once in Earth orbit they were frequently demoted from competent to naive observers, especially when confronting features seen from a novel perspective high above a land- or seascape racing past beneath them. To recognize features under such circumstances often proved extremely difficult.

Consciousness is the mental domain within which recognition emerges when a relevant concept is mapped from memory onto a passing percept, giving it—in a fraction of a second—an identity and a name. Since Aristotle, that kind of perceptual recognition has been called categorization. Aristotle thought of it as an objective process, as if a person or thing could objectively declare its own identity; it was what it was. Kant saw characterization as a subjective process through which an observer made sense of his world by bestowing an identity upon it; it was what he said it was. The Kantian view leaves room for metaphor in cases where an observer deliberately casts a novel and surprising identity upon a familiar percept, calling it by other than its literal name to heighten a particular facet of its conventional definition or identity.

A competent observer has a vast repertoire of labeled concepts to cast, like a net, upon her world. Whatever language she speaks, the labels clearly reside in her memory (or her culture’s memory) rather than in objects themselves. Nature is not the labeler; humanity is. Kant wins over Aristotle.

In early posts to this blog, I told stories of mistaking a windblown trash bag for a dying crow, a swept-back TV antenna for a crashing jet, a total stranger for my friend Fred. These are examples of category errors, of matching inappropriate concepts in my repertory of familiar images to a particular percept in my experience. In looking for mustard in its familiar jar, I never though it would be lying on its side on the refrigerator shelf, presenting its round, red top to my gaze when I was actually looking for a jar with a trademark shape seen in profile. The world we see (or don’t see) is the world we look for. That is, the inner, categorical world guides our expectancy as, time after time, we seek to fulfill the unique set of values that makes us who we are as individuals. If astronaut Brand thought he saw two specks below him as the pyramids, it was because he wanted to see the pyramids. In a subsequent debriefing, he said:

I don’t believe now that I saw them. I had the benefit of two passes. The first pass, I saw two little dots that I thought possibly were pyramids. At that point, I wished I had a map of the pyramids on the ground so I could see what they’re supposed to look like. I think probably what I saw were fields or something like that. So, I would say, no, I didn’t see them. (187)

Consciousness is always consciousness of one thing or another. That is, recognition or categorization is simultaneous with perception. We live in a world of significant objects made salient by our respective needs at the time as heightened through the agency of personal attention. If the figure of my friend Fred emerged on a crowded, New York sidewalk in front of me, it was because that figure was lodged in my mind from long acquaintance in Seattle. Knowing he was moving to New York, I transported that figure in my mind and projected it outward onto Fifth Avenue. Voila, that must be him up ahead. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t Fred.

Intentionality is the term for seeing (hearing, etc.) things with recognition at first glance. It is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness because, unlike paintings on museum walls, things do not bear identifying labels in the natural world. Recognition clearly implies memory being mapped onto sensory patterns as experience flows through us, much as Vance Brand mapped “the pyramids” onto two dots in the landscape of Egypt.

Intentionality, then, depends on recognition, that in turn depends on a form of conceptual memory by which myriad sensory experiences are synthesized into a kind of schematic or overall pattern derived from what such experiences share in common. In other words, intentionality is seeing the sensory now in terms of a schematized or conceptual then. Receiving Jesus as the messiah depends on familiarity with certain Old Testament prophesies, and mapping the one onto the other, “recognizing” or assuming them to be the same. They are taken to be the same to the extent the perceiver wants them to be the same, as astronaut Brand wanted two dots to be the pyramids. As I am fond of saying, for personal consciousness, expectancy is destiny.

Intentionality is made possible by classes of concepts sorted into bins of personally relevant concepts bearing such labels as Who?, What?, Whom?, Where?, When?, How?, and Why? These categories of categories are the stuff human situations are made of, and in terms of which they can be described and understood. To give one example:

On December 11th, 2009, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce from Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail over Father’s Day when he was actually shacked up with his lover in Argentina for five days.

If things are seldom what they seem, it is because personal consciousness, in presenting itself to the world through overt acts, is truly serving the values, comfort, and self-interest of the individual person. Consciousness, that is, mediates between the individual, biological person and her sensory world. Percepts, concepts, and consciousness itself are meaningfully categorized to suit the survival interests of the person herself as she views them—which is always a subjective judgment call.

Gerald Edelman depicts consciousness as arising from the interactive correlation between conceptual memory and current perceptual categorization. The memory aspect of consciousness is driven by fulfillment or frustration of values resident in the self, the perceptual categorization by sensory patterns similar in some ways to such memories, resulting in a sense of salience or biological significance. “Primary consciousness,” he writes, arises “as a result of reentrant circuits connecting special memory functions to those mediating current perceptual categorization” (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1989, page 64). Elaborating later on:

The idea that I attempt to refine here is that consciousness is the result of an ongoing categorical comparison of the workings of two kinds of nervous organization. This comparison is based on a special kind of memory, and is related to the satisfaction of physiologically determined needs as that memory is brought up to date by the perceptual categorizations that emerge from ongoing present experience. Through behavior and particularly through learning, the continual interaction of this kind of memory with present perception results in consciousness. (page 93)

What we learn, that is, reflects significant relationships between prior and current aspects of experience as relevant to homeo-stasis and survival. In addition to perceptual categorization, memory, and learning, Edelman discovers a need to place additional emphasis on a fourth dimension of consciousness, “the idea that two parts of the nervous system differ radically in their evolution, organization, and function,” parts which he calls “self” and “nonself” (page 94):

In richly endowed nervous systems, these portions must be organized differently but also be in com-munication. While neural parts of the first kind . . . operate within developmentally given parameters, those of the second kind . . . operate largely through ongoing exteroceptive sensory interactions with the world, that is, through experience and behavior. The operation of the first set of neural regions is . . . essential to define self within a species by assuring homeostatic regulation in each individual. The second set operates mainly to define nonself [or the world]. (page 94)

As Edelman explains, “It is the discrimination between the self and the nonself portions of the nervous system mediated by the mechanisms leading to primary consciousness” that assigns salience to some sensory events and not others in a situation as perceived by a given individual. Which is why, in the examples I gave at the head of this post, astronaut Brand “sees” the pyramids, and astronaut Slayton next to him scoffs at the idea. In Edelman’s words, “When categorized behavior [seeing or not seeing “the pyramids”] satisfies a value. . . , the inter-actions of self and nonself systems lead to altered synaptic efficacies. . . .” providing “one of the necessary bases for storage in the special memory, correlating value with category and discriminating self from nonself.” (page 98f.)

This is but a smattering of Edelman’s writing on categorization, but an important smattering in connecting self to nonself, concepts to percepts, memory to sensory events, abstract summations of experience to concrete experience in the here and now. I will conclude with one last quote from The Remembered Present:

Primary [non symbolic, non linguistic] conscious-ness may thus be briefly described as the result of the ongoing discrimination of present perceptual categorizations by a value dominated self-nonself memory. Inasmuch as such a memory is built by relating previous perceptual categorizations to values, primary consciousness is accomplished by continual bootstrapping of current perceptual states into memory states. (page 102)

Edelman is talking here about astronaut consciousness as well as your consciousness and mine. Go back and read this post again. And again. It will surely crop up on the final exam—which is none other than life itself. Even if you’re not an astronaut, it may help to be able to tell plankton from bottom from scum from trash.

Categorize this.


(Copyright © 2010)

Speaking of writers who have influenced my life, as I did in my last post (Reflection 168: Edelman on Consciousness), I woke up this morning thinking of my debt to Jerome Bruner who, twenty-eight years ago, had a lasting influence on my writing and conscious mind. I offer the following sample of something I wrote then in which Bruner’s ideas helped me weave strands developing in my personal consciousness into a coherent pattern. I see now that the very words I wrote are a symbolic example of what Bruner was trying to convey.

Since I’m quoting myself, I’ll skip the block quotes I generally use to signify words spoken or written by others. The following is taken from the last chapter of Metaphor to Mythology by S. Perrin, 1982, printed by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983. Yes, the language comes from that other planet I lived on at the time.


As Jerome Bruner states, “the mythologically instructed community provides its members with a library of scripts upon which the individual may judge the internal drama of his multiple identities” (see note (1) below), while, at the same time, certain heroic individuals themselves can contribute their respective scripts to the communal library. In this way the rich variety of personal heritages present within a community can achieve a symbolic (gestural, dramatic) kind of unity that lends support to belief in a common [mythology]. If different members of a community enact similar gestures on similar occasions, is it not safe to conclude that their intentions are also the same? It is the function of our mythologies to turn that question into an affirmation so that, in spite of our individual episodes of disillusionment and ineffective communication, we can find a general agreement between our own gestures as meant and the gestures we encounter in our community as performances underwritten by a supposedly similar set of meanings. Thus do we assent to a common mythology as a set of possibilities for self-realization in which we are able to recognize not only our own heritage of attained identities, but (on the basis of gestures we have never performed) the promise of other identities we have yet to fulfill. We are completed by our mythologies, for in them we find the complement to our own participation, finding innocence where we contribute gestures informed by competence, and competence where we volunteer our innocence. The outcome is that we do not picture ourselves as trapped within the limitations established by our heritage, nor restricted to those possibilities for being which we are capable of realizing right now, but as open to a future level of attainment that surpasses either so that we have a possibility of becoming more than we have been, more than we are.

In other words, by completing our being and our heritage of meaning, a mythology beckons to us as a revelation of possibilities for becoming, a promise of enrichment or of growth, because it holds out to us a limitless series of gestures which we ourselves have never performed, but which we believe ourselves capable of performing with appropriate (but as yet unknown) intentions. That hope, and that challenge, is the essential gift of community, the gift of becoming more than our heritage suggests, more than we presently are, allowing us to believe that we are not imprisoned within the confines of the past, nor trapped by the few dimensions of being we are able to appreciate right now, but are capable of fulfilling a greater destiny than we can even understand. Community does not gives us ourselves, but it holds out the promise of our own self-transcendence by completing our competence and our innocence with the suggestion of other competences and other degrees of innocence than we at present realize. Even in a face-to-face encounter with another, we each become aware of other possibilities for being and meaning as intimated by our exchange of gestures, and we serve to complete one another’s limited range of experience so that together we form a community of expanded possibility, even though we contribute to—and draw from—those possibilities in different ways.

If . . . we look at social reality as being fundamentally symbolic, there is no guarantee that any two individuals will regard an exchange of symbolic gestures from a single perspective, according to the same authority, or with identical degrees of conviction. In fact, given all evidence for our differences, it can never be assumed that agreement upon certain gestures as “symbolic” carries any certainty of agreement among the meanings to which they might refer within our separate streams of experience. For though we may come together in community, we come as particular individuals, not as some statistically-leveled “common man” who embodies the stereotyped ideals of the abstract whole. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

In his life-form the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man. He is limited either as male or as female; at any given period of his life he is again limited as child, youth, mature adult, or ancient; furthermore, in his life role he is necessarily specialized as craftsman, trades-man, servant, or thief, priest, leader, wife, nun, or harlot; he cannot be all. Hence the totality—the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can be only an organ (2).

The synchronized exchange of gestures, then, allows us to insert ourselves into the mythic text of our community by assuming the role of specialized parts or organs at one [pole of an interactive exchange] that loops between our concrete acts and the communal tradition into which they are received as meaningfully intended symbols in apparent conformity with the accepted grammar of our shared linguistic expectations.

In verbal exchange every sentence is a complex series of gestures (involving relations of pitch, stress, juncture, and phonetic units) as the existential performance of a set of mutually embedded meanings spread across a range of abstract levels (from the ostensively present and concrete to the referentially conceptual and abstract), a series of gestures themselves embedded in a context of other (situational, verbal, and nonverbal) gestures subject to construal by each respective participant. The relation between possible gestures and possible situations is dictated by the traditional grammar of the community within which the dialogue is taking place, so that language is not only a medium of communal mythology, but is itself an aspect of that mythology. Language is something in which we believe and to which we must commit ourselves—at the same time we commit our meanings to it. It is possible only insofar as it represents a convergence of our trust and of our cunning, our credence and our reservation.

That is, we must be naive enough to place our faith in language as a factor of our mythology while, at the same time, we must be canny enough to employ language as a medium for that same mythology. And the solution to that most amazing of all paradoxes lies in the skill with which we attempt to balance the one against the other—our innocence against our cleverness, our gullibility against our guile—within a synchronous dialogue in which mythology and language trade off against each other, first one as concrete figure within the subsidiary context of the other, then vice versa, allowing us to believe in our mythology as we practice our language, and to believe in our language as we practice our mythology while, at the same time, we extend those same beliefs and practices to embrace our partner who herself must complete our language and our mythology. It is this double sense of completion—of ourselves and of each other—that makes communal experience possible as a performance in which each participant does for the other what she cannot do for herself, bringing about a unification of language and mythology through their shared disjunction. When you speak I surrender my mythology to you so that I do not hear your words but experience your meanings directly. I embrace you with my innocence in order to appreciate your competence, and when I respond you do the same for me. Together we complete each other, achieving our separate identities within a community of activity to which we each contribute belief and practice in like degree.

Innocent belief and clever practice are, in fact, the two poles that Bruner discovers in all mythology:

From . . . early myths there emerge two types of mythic plot: the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness—the former being a kind of Arcadian ideal, requiring the eschewal of complexity and awareness, the latter requiring the cultivation of competence almost to the point of guile (3).

Every individual myth represents a variation upon the possibilities for equilibrium offered by these two poles, and the mythic hero who exemplifies a particular possibility for their integration serves as a paragon for the instruction of those who would strive for excellence within a particular community of belief:

The manner in which superior knowledge shows itself changes: the ideal of the crafty warrior, the wise man, the interpreter of the word of God, the Renaissance omni-competent, the wily merchant, the financial wizard, the political genius. It is true that in some way each is suspect, it is also true that each is idealized in his own way. . . . New versions arise to reflect the ritual and practice of each era—the modifications of the happiness of innocence and the satisfaction of competence (4).

The dynamic quality of superior knowledge, its essentially evolutionary character, demonstrates that a mythology is not a fixed system within which individuals are restricted to certain traditional ways of practice and belief. Rather, a mythology is a vehicle of transcendence, a way by which individual and community alike can undertake the hazardous journey of becoming. Its function is not to hold a people back, but to encourage it to propel itself forward, competently yet innocently into the altered conditions of the future. A mythology, in fact, is a miraculous aspect of biology that enables an entire population to base its forward thrust upon its most striking examples of past success while, at the same time, making allowance for the inevitable expansion and improvement—and ultimate replacement—of those same examples.

To function effectively in this way, a mythology should be allowed to grow. Its emphasis should be upon current affirmation rather than on preservation of the past. . . . A mythology is a progressive system of belief that seeks out successive states of dis-illusion in which the old innocence continually gives way to an improved sense of competence which, in turn, makes possible the attainment of a renewed state of innocence. The alternative is exemplified by the French Academy’s attempt to preserve the purity of the French language by withholding its sanction from all neologisms and words of foreign extraction. The conceit implied by that endeavor seems to demand the suppression of all evidence that the French of the 1860s was not the language of God the father, but itself evolved—as did Rumanian and Catalan, from a foreign tongue!

Each combination of competence and innocence represents the achievement of a particular heroic individual who shows others the way to obtain the “right” balance between cunning and acceptance, meaning and existence. In fact every individual within her [interactive] involvement with her culture is at once a free and independent person who only abstractly can be taken as a representative of her community and, at the same time, an amorphous mass of possibilities whose realization is entirely dependent upon the concrete gifts she receives from the mythology granting her an identity. Each of us, that is, is simultaneously an existential child, and affirmation of pure and innocent participation in being, and at the same time is a mature and sagacious elder of the tribe, a bearer of tradition and of wisdom. When we speak, we strive for resonance between these two aspects of our [conscious] experience so our words may convey a sense of conviction that we have managed to equate our heroism with our vulnerability and thus we stand forth as an integrated whole in which every aspect of experience is represented according to a dynamic balance of our longing and our accomplishment, a synthesis that makes our words accessible to our partners in dialogue because they seek a similar resonance.

A mythology is perpetuated by acts of mutual accompaniment that allow us to form a community of synchronous affirmation. My innocence affirms the competence with which you express your thoughts through symbolic gestures, just as my own competence affirms your innocence as a confederate in a shared mythology. We complement one another so that through our joint participation in mythology we are able to achieve a being together in meaning. We employ every aspect of that mythology, every symbol, in two senses: as a concrete linguistic statement of our being, and an abstract mythological reference to our meaning. By looping these symbols in a chain that leads from my being to your meaning and back again via your being to my meaning, we align ourselves in a community of gesture and belief that affirms the possibilities of our individual experience even as we affirm its superior possibilities for our inter-subjective conjunction. This mutual affirmation of individual and communal possibilities is discussed by Bruner in the following terms:

I would like to submit that the manner in which man has striven for competence and longed for inno-cence has reflected the controlling myths of the community. The medieval scholar, the Florentine prince, the guild craftsman alike, as well as the withdrawn monastic of Thomas a Kempis and the mendicant of St. Francis—all of these are deeply involved with the myths of innocence and com-petence, and are formed by them. . . . It is not simply society that patterns itself on the idealizing myths, but unconsciously it is the individual man as well who is able to structure his internal clamor of identities in terms of prevailing myths. Life then produces myth and finally imitates it (5).

Mythology alerts us to the possibility of attaining heroic stature and identity while receiving our creative gestures as a per-formance of our own heroic strivings. The hero . . . is the founder within us, the innovator who furthers the spirit of becoming within a mythology by questing after the expansion of the old tradition and the novel fulfillment of each individual’s heritage. By warranting our creative natures, a mythology commits itself to its own renovation and development through our fulfillment of its prospects. It holds before us “a corpus of images and identities and models that provides the pattern to which growth may aspire—a range of metaphoric identities” (6), so that our innovative competence is encouraged and the attainment of new horizons made possible.


How strange to read over the shoulder of my younger self as a writer. Strange in that I was different then, but the same as I am today, pursuing the same quarry within the human mind, seat of all human experience. Mythology is alive and well in the recesses of consciousness, the same as it ever was, serving the same purpose of aligning the individual with her culture, calibrating her mind in socially-acceptable terms, transforming each unique person into “one of us,” providing her with a social identity, much as the State Department provides her with a passport so she can explain to the Customs officer who she truly is.

My current interest in innocence and competence is as broad categorizations of states of consciousness and the gestures (actions) by which they engage the world of objects and other conscious beings. Innocence is a kind of openness to—or even fearlessness of—events. It is the state of mind necessary for learning what the current situation has to offer. Competence is the state of mind adequate to performing appropriately in a variety of situations. Competence is suitable to every occasion; innocence is the gateway to experience in the here and now. In psychological terms, competence prepares for assimilation, innocence for accommodation, the two together equipping us to engage the world on either its terms or ours. Where competence categorizes the world as it sees fit, innocence is ready to try its hand at learning to categorize as a means of reaching out to the world. Experience is a balance between these two approaches, the willingness to learn and the willingness to show what you can do.

To me, personally, these are aspects of one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness—how we make sense of experience by categorizing it one way or another. Expect more on that topic in future posts. For now, thank you, Jerome Bruner, for the assist.



(1) Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” in Murray, Henry A., ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Braziller, 1960, 281).

(2) Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 382f., quoted in Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” 280.

(3) Same as (1).

(4) Same source, 282.

(5) Same source, 282f.

(6) Same as (2).