Reflection 178: Mind Sets

February 4, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Never underestimate the power of is.

One and one is two.

Abbas is yesterday’s man.

God is love.

The cat is on the mat.

That giraffe is one sick animal.

In each case, one part of the human mind (conceptual memory from the past) reaches out to another part (sensory perception in the now) in such a way to categorize or characterize (lend character to) it, using language to create a meaningful moment of experience. The is bestows not only attention, recognition, or existence on the perception by naming it, but gives it definite qualities or character as we see it in our mind’s eye.

One and one is two. Two distinct things make one unified thing—a pair, couple, item, entity. If that isn’t mental magic, I don’t know what is. The only way that can happen is for all particularity to be stripped away, making the entities identical for our present purposes. One apple and one orange make two pieces of fruit. One boy and one girl make a pair or an item. They may be separate, but we come to think of them together, even to see them together. Different sexes perhaps, different blood types, different genomes—but in our minds we bind them as one. Jack and Jill, Antony and Cleopatra, Rogers and Astaire, Laurel and Hardy. Separate but equal contributors to a whole. If not in reality, then in our minds. That’s where the magic is performed.

Abbas is yesterday’s man. Let me give you the whole sentence as Fawaz A. Gerges wrote it (“The Transformation of Hamas,” in The Nation (January 25, 2010):

P[alestinian] A[uthority] President Mahmoud Abbas has been weakened by a series of blunders of his own making, and with his moral authority compromised in the eyes of a sizable Palestinian constituency, Abbas is yesterday’s man—no matter how long he remains in power as a lame duck, and whether or not he competes in the upcoming presidential elections (page 22).

Presenting Abbas as a man who has outlived his time, how powerful is that? Mind magic, again, categorizing a person from a particular point of view—as seen through another man’s eyes. Here the author’s attitude toward his subject colors what he finds, or places him in a box wholly different  from the conventional form of “PA President.”

God is love. The ultimate abstraction is painted in terms of a feeling we have all known at one time or another, as if the abstraction generated the feeling: Where love is, there is God—confounding a concept with a biological state of mind. This is not just mixing metaphors, it is smashing them together in a particle collider. The phrase rolls off the tongue, and is much cited, but it doesn’t mean anything because it treats two different categories of life experience—one essentially mythical and literary, the other experiential—as if they were the same.

The cat is on the mat. You wouldn’t believe how many linguists have analyzed this sentence to find out where it came from. It categorizes the cat by giving it a place, answering the eternal questions, “Where’s the cat?” or “What’s that thing on the mat?” or “What’s under the cat?” etc. The whole sentence betrays a scientific attitude toward syntax and the spontaneous generation of language. As such, it is a conceptual horror, an artifact, a research tool never imagined by real children. Teacher says, “Give me a sentence of one syllable words containing a prepositional phrase and a word rhyming with cat.” It may look like language, but it died in the making.

That giraffe is one sick animal. Here the abstract concept “giraffe” is qualified by unmentioned symptoms of illness, so is categorized very loosely as “sick” without telling us why. This is an intuitive, folk diagnosis, on a par with “Tell me what’s wrong, Doc,” betraying a certain wariness, which is the true subject of the sentence. The squeamish attitude of the speaker or writer is the unstated issue (subject), not the giraffe—and it doesn’t even appear in the sentence in so many words. If you diagram it correctly, you miss the point.

The point I’m trying to bring out is that categorizations, which each of us perform a thousand times a day, are trickier than at first they seem. Only rarely can we get away with calling a spade a spade. Or stripping all qualities away and dealing solely with quantities, as if 1 + 1 = 2 were actually true and not code for a multitude, depending on how you look at it. I call individual posts to this blog “reflections,” trying to draw attention to our personal responsibility for seeing the world as we do, which is invariably other than it is. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about finding “an echo of thought in sight,” which sums up my whole point. Yet we unwittingly cast those echoes into the world without seeing them for the projections they really are. We are the magicians who create meaningful episodes of experience, and yet take no credit for our skill.

The recognition of a pear as a pear, a road as a road, a cloud as a cloud—is in us, not any pear, road, cloud, all coming to us unlabeled and uncategorized. We cast pearhood upon this one, roadhood on that one, cloudhood on the one up above—transferring a handy item in memory to the scene before us, as if our experience were a property of the scene itself and not of personal consciousness—as if everyone else sees it exactly as we do. But meaningful couplings of concepts and percepts, memories and phenomena, are demonstrably features of the mind, not the world. In truth, nothing can be as it appears without a mind making that judgment. In calling a spade a spade, it is the calling that matters, not the spade or the idea of a spade. It is the act of categorizing, recognizing, projecting, transferring that matters, the bodily casting of an idea upon the waters of the world. Which we all do all the time without realizing it, turning the world outside-in, ourselves inside-out—all as a matter of course, not appreciating the magic in what we do every day.

Our minds are full of sets of things. Categories, types, sorts—in a word, concepts. Which we have interpolated from similarities between a string of earlier sensory experiences, laying down networks of linked pathways in our brains, ready to cast upon the world whenever sensory phenomena assume a familiar pattern—itself generated by the networks that perform the recognizing each time. We see what we are familiar with because becoming familiar with the patterns we encounter in our minds is what we do best. Allowing us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, as if we invented the whole process, which we did! As we look upon the world, so do we see. If we fear terrorist attacks, we suspect them everywhere. Wheat makes me sick, so I even imagine it blowing on the wind. Real or imagined, the world is as we categorize the patterns we look for—and inevitably find. Each in her own way because her life experience and her physical development and her genome are unique. So each of our worlds is unique; it has to be, it is our own doing.

On playing fields, umpires categorize as a profession, telling balls from strikes, safe from out. Judges in their courtrooms do much the same, distinguishing falsehood from truth, guilt from innocence. Careers are at stake here, reputations on the line; which is it to be, personal freedom or incarceration, or even capital punishment? Categorizations matter. They are often mistaken or plainly wrong because we are all creatures of strong views and prejudices. Politicians distinguish very broadly between party beliefs and affiliation, party members seeming to inhabit separate universes whose laws are mutually exclusive. In the 1950s and 60s, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to be an expert at recognizing Communist sympathizers on sight. Whatever the facts, he would sniff them out, as long as they fit the pattern in his head, or the scent that so famously stopped up his nose.

Speaking of noses, the molecules our bodies are made of—together with the atoms making them up—are loaned to us by the universe to see what we can make of them and do with them. The animalcules on our skin and in our gut—ten times more numerous than the cells making up our bodies—are also loaned to us to see what, together, we can do. What we can make happen in this crazy paradise we call Earth. Plants arrange their molecules into cells conducting sap from soil to leaves. At the heart of the stem, cells die, forming a structure that is flexible and holds the tree up, swaying in strong winds. Near the outside just under the bark, living cells conduct sap upward, nutrients downward, promoting growth and life’s continuance. Other beings come from outside the tree to drill holes in the bark, allowing sap to ooze out, so bacteria have access to it, then the other beings—yellow-bellied sapsuckers, say—come back to check on what is happening in the holes it drilled earlier, eat the sap and bacteria to replenish their bodies in order to see what they, in turn, can make happen on Earth. Each being is a unique agent of the universe, all collectively striving to see what this generation of Earthlings can make happen.

My personal categorizations flows like sap from my body and from the experience of its molecules and atoms, its cells, organs, and organ systems. This enables my brain and my body to make collective sense of what I can know of the Earth, to organize an understanding of how Earth works for the purpose of working with similar systems or enhancing those that constitute my tribe and my kind of people. All this came to me in a dream as I was waking up this morning. A crazy dream, but no crazier than the life system that makes it possible, no crazier than the categories I project onto other dreamers so they will fit my understanding of my time and my place and what I am here to make happen while my particular mix of molecules gives me and my animalcules the structure we share together to make events happen in the universe. Thank you atoms and molecules, animalcules, thank you universe. I’ll see what I can do. When I die, I will donate my atoms and molecules to those who come after me; perhaps they will make better use of them than I have been able to do.

Speaking of craziness, I once sat through a lecture feeling uncomfortable the whole time because the speaker looked straight at me and no one else in the audience. Afterwards, I asked her why she had singled me out and she said I looked just liker her son. She was talking to him, not to me; I was just a dummy sitting in a chair. In certain circles, that is called transference, but at root it is miscategorization—treating a spade as if it were an eggplant. One thing leading to another, as it so often does in this life, I later (1970s) found myself in a graduate student professional development program studying how to use such projections or transferences to raise self-awareness. That led me to a brief acquaintance with the percept language developed by John Weir. I realize now the broader implication of percept language as a tool for mastering categorization by helping us see how we do violence to the world by shaping our worlds to conform to our personal experiences, as that speaker so long ago did—as I sat quietly in my chair—violence to me. It felt like rape at a distance, she using me for her own purposes while I was defenseless to do anything about it.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in revenge for the leveling of the Twin Towers fits the same pattern, transferring our hurt and anger to an innocent nation we didn’t particularly like, even though we had used it in the 1980s as a pawn on our side in the Cold War. Just as the nation of Israel now vents its spleen on the current generation of Palestinians whose parents it displaced in invading Palestine in 1948, deflecting its own collective guilt onto innocent parties, blaming the victims, not seeing that its own hostility is a projection, transference, or miscategorization aimed at the wrong target employed precisely to get itself off the hook so it can sleep comfortably in its bed at night.

Such is consciousness, and the life conducted in its name. I call it crazy and shameful, unless we all assume an attitude of curiosity about why we do the things we do, and take personal responsibility for the chaotic scripts we enact in doing the terrible things we inflict on others. Heightened self-awareness is the less-traveled road we could take if such a course fit our itinerary. Instead, we insist on plummeting toward Armageddon as if that were our destined endpoint. Which is where Weir’s percept language comes in, designed for those who catch themselves in the act of using other beings for their purposes. The language is so powerful, it makes you take responsibility for your own actions instead of blaming others, abusing them as if they deserved it through repeated acts of aggressive self-justification. I don’t think John Weir understood the greatness of his contribution. Since the early 1980s, I have never met anyone who has even heard of him.

To set the record straight, I will end this post with two paragraphs from his chapter on “The Personal Growth Laboratory” in Benne, K., et al., The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application (Science and Behavior Books, 1975; available at on January 25, 2010, when I downloaded it):

The first morning session is devoted to reporting the previous night’s dreams. At this time, we introduce a special point of view which we will emphasize throughout the lab. We start with the centuries-old philosophical theory of solipsism which states that only the self exists, or can be proven to exist. In our application, we take the position that, as far as I, the perceiver, am concerned, the external world “exists” only inside me as sensations and images. Objects as experienced are solely the consequence of my perceptual processes. . . . All my experience takes place solely within me, within the confines of my body. It occurs continuously, from moment to moment. I live only in the here and now. . . .

Our frame of reference for the lab, then, is that each of us is continually perceiving and organizing his world in his unique way, never precisely the same as anyone else. I am “doing” myself and you are “doing” yourself. Your “existence” is for me always my perception of you, the “you-in-me,” and I “exist” for you only as the “me-in-you.” You are there, you act, you may even physically influence me. This has the consequence of changing the “you-in-me” and the “me-in-you.” How I “do” the “you-in-me” is determined by my deeds, my perceptions, and my past experiences. It is, I am, always my own responsibility. This is true both for how I do myself and how you do yourself. We conclude that the perceptual elements of our interpersonal interactions consist of a “you,” a “me,” a “you-in-me,” and a “me-in-you.”

Like the umpire or referee, our behavior is invariably a matter of judgment calls. To make this line of thinking more accessible to ourselves, we can think of all behavior as being, at base, metaphorical in nature. Metaphors are miscategorizations to a purpose, which is to emphasize a particular aspect of an event, thing, situation, or phenomenon in awareness. They are deliberate cartoons, distortions, exaggerations, or misrepresentations drawing attention to something as seen from one point of view or another. We take responsibility for the metaphors we cast on the world. When we take them at face value and don’t see them as intentional distortions, is when we get into (and cause) so much trouble. Then we label our intent as God’s truth, which others may experience as Satan’s outright lies. Thus our respective worlds turn about an axis provided by the unique set of our own minds.

As we look, so do we see.


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