(Copyright © 2010)

With this post, I am laying my blog to rest—at least for the time being. I intend to go back over what I have written so far with an eye to rearranging the content in less hectic order, better to convey my cumulative understanding of conscious experience. And to reveal gaps that need filling-in. Maybe a book will result, maybe not. I invite you to explore and ruminate on what is on offer. Check out postlinks (above) and look around.

In Reflection 121: Spirituality, I wrote of witnessing over the years a cartwheel display of northern lights, two dancers atop Cadillac Mountain at sunrise, a male goldfinch singing, and an aurora seen above an island joining with its own reflection to form a cosmic green eye. Of these sorts of experiences I wrote:

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble space Telescope.

Yes, that intuitive feeling of connectedness is a big part of what I call spirituality—but it is not all. An explicit feeling of thankfulness at being fully present to such moments also contributes to spirituality, a giving of self in gratitude for being alive to participate in yet another memorable instant of existence. Beyond feelings of thankfulness, often food and sex serve as vital dimensions of our relationship with partners, family, friends, and community. Without such driving values as food and sex, we would not be alive to enjoy the fruits of consciousness.

Lately, I have been trying to imagine myself crawling into a cave—say, Altamira or Lascaux—to witness images of animals such as bison, horses, lions, and mammoths painted by upper-Paleolithic peoples some 30 to 10 thousand years ago. My search is for purely visual patterns of experience so that I can stand before them without laying any preconceived meanings upon them, determined to claim the experience of uninterpreted (uncategorized) sight as if for the first time. How would it be to hold a dim, tallow lamp close to the walls of a cave to discover those hand-drawn animate forms? In my own era I am jaded by having seen a thing many times before so that I know immediately what it is, seeing more with my conceptual memory than my eyes. Recognizing a sight as representing a class of similar sights is not really seeing.

So I picture myself entering a cave in my mind, watchful over my little lamp, led by one who knows the way, stooping, crawling, expecting, yet not picturing what I will find. My hope is to see something so strange and wonderful that I am forced to reinvent myself to take it all in. Categorization makes me no bigger than I was; I want to live a life that grows larger every day. I need fresh visions and discoveries to feed my hunger for sensory experience, understanding, and to whet my curiosity about what might yet be possible. Celebration is what I’m after, of my fleeting self on my winding, serendipitous path through the universe. But that is an idea; I’m not after ideas: I want sensory evidence as proof that I am fully alive where I am, when I am.

In a grotto, by the glow of my tallow lamp, I am awestruck by what I find. It is nothing I know or recognize. The patterns are intuitively familiar, but like nothing I have seen before. There are no landscapes with grasses, shrubs, or trees. No sunlight beyond my little lamp. No clouds in the sky. No trickling streams, no birds. Not even rock walls. Nothing is moving, yet the scene seems to gallop through my head. I am sure I hear hooves rushing by, snorts, whinnies, growls. Startled, I look around, but quickly return to the scene just inches in front of my eyes. The essential core of the animate world is here, and I am connected to it and part of it. This is my world. Yes, I feel it, my little life depends on this scene, on these particular beasts—woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, horses, reindeer, bison, bears, stags, lions, ibexes. Without them, I wouldn’t be here in this cave—or anywhere. I never realized it before, but now I climb above my daily grasp of things and join the higher life beyond. These forms give shape to a transcendent grasp of reality, which I can only call spiritual because it is not of my everyday world. I owe every thought and experience to the scene that opens before me deep in the cave of my mind. This, truly, is where I live. In this scene, with these animals. Nothing else matters. This is the ultimate vision, seen by my ultimate self. I have risen; now I can die.

But before I do, I want to register my own presence. I have no votive offerings. Only a small piece of charcoal. What trace of myself can I leave? I have no sense that the patterns before me are drawn by human hands. They are primeval, here before the people came, here after we go. But one before me has made an appropriate gesture in response. A handprint to show he was here—and is still here—has become part of the scene. Intuitively, I bite off a small chunk of charcoal, grind it between my molars, mix it with saliva. Raising my free hand against the cave wall above the back of the horse, I blow black pigment around my pressed hand, leaving, when I take it away, a silhouette of my presence—my hands-on contribution to this magical scene.

Spotted Horse and Handprints

That mental excursion suggests the state of my mind this week when my son and his wife returned from New Mexico and gave me a gift from Bandeliere National Monument near Santa Fe. It was a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing a Native American design which the park service adopted as the emblem of Bandeliere: the four directions (suggesting their totem animals, such as golden eagle, mouse, bear, white buffalo) placed against the face of the sun, with a small handprint in the center—extending toward—as if to touch or bless—the bright solar disc.

Bandeliere Sun with 4 Directions & Handprint

Suddenly I get it. Reaching out in gratitude for the gift of radiant energy that supports life on our planet. No matter in what form it is made manifest—animal, plant, mineral—it is the same energy. Solar radiation. The gift of sunlight that feeds almost all life on Earth. Certainly the life forms we are familiar with, especially those we depend on as our life-support system. 

Cut to Jesus at his last Passover meal breaking bread and drinking wine with his companions. What was it he said? According to Matthew 26.26-29 (New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition):

During supper Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples with the words: ‘Take this and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them with the words: ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

This is my body, this is my blood. These words are in keeping with the symbolism of vegetative renewal that is at the core of the Jesus story. Bread from grain; wine from grapes. Both  miraculously renewing themselves about the time of the vernal equinox and the Passover feast held shortly thereafter. In the rites of Dionysos-Attis-Adonis held at that time of year, seeds were buried in soil held in small baskets, sprinkled with water, and when in three days they sprouted, celebrants cried the local equivalent of “He is risen, he is risen!”

“Palestine is a fertile land,” writes E. O. James in From Cave to Cathedral: Temples and Shrines of Prehistoric, Classical, and Early Christian Times (Praeger, 1965):

Having a temperate climate . . . agriculture flourished, and . . . the people for the most part were peasants with an agricultural economy, dependent largely upon the seasonal sequence as in Mesopotamia.

. . . . Normally in April the hillsides in Galilee are decked with a profusion of wild flowers with the green corn waving in the cool breezes on the fields below, the north especially being ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills . . . a land of oil, olive and honey.’ . . . From the end of May there is constant anxiety about the condition of the grain during the dry season, especially when the seasonal rains are pending. This found expression in a Canaanite myth and ritual of the Tammuz type and a seasonal drama (page 167).

Over thousands of years, Paleolithic hunters morphed into latter-day agriculturalists. Again, in the words of E.O. James (Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, Barnes & Noble, 1961):

As food-gathering dropped more and more into the background until finally it was abandoned, . . . the fertility of the soil and the succession of summer and winter, springtime and harvest, together with the associated pursuits—tilling and ploughing, sowing and reaping—became the centre of interest and of the ritual organization. . . . Nature was no less precarious for the farmer than for the hunter, consequently at the critical seasons an emotional reaction to the prevailing tension called forth a ritual response to ensure success in the food-producing activities at their several stages, and overcome the unpredictable elements in the situation outside human control by natural means. . . . Around this cultus a death and resurrection drama in due course developed (pages 33-34).

The union of Sky-father and Earth-mother symbolized the sacred marriage of spring rains with fertile soil, resulting in the birth of the divine child—manifest in the crops that sustained human life. As W.K.C. Guthrie tells the story in The Greeks and Their Gods (Beacon Press, 1950):

The young god who stands primarily for ‘the whole wet element’ in nature, as Plutarch describes Dionysos—that is, not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants—meets us under different names all over the nearer parts of Asia and in Egypt, as well as in Thrace, as Dionysos, Zalmoxis, Sabazios, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris and many others (page 156).

Whether based on the historical record or the mythic tradition, Jesus-as-portrayed is one representative of that distinguished company. As other gods did before him, he at first symbolized the hope of seasonal renewal to early farmers at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Very much an essential link in the chain from upper Paleolithic cave art to today’s fascination with the one-time offer of eternal life, Jesus was swept into high office on the reputation of his distinguished predecessors. But the organized church wasn’t satisfied with merely seasonal renewal. It wanted an all-time guarantee of life everlasting so that all we need do is die—and we will be born not just again but forever. Nothing short of eternity will do. No problem—as long as our indulgences are paid for in advance.

In focusing on the mythic symbol himself instead of the vital seasonal renewal Jesus initially symbolized, the Roman church cut itself off from its roots in Earth’s annual cycles of vegetation, disparaging the worshipping of such cycles as pagan and heretical—even though they provided the experiential grounds of its own metaphorical teachings. The priesthood was looking St. Peter's Basilica, Romeafter itself by centralizing its authority in urban basilicas—great stone galleries much like caves built aboveground. It proved far easier to manage abstract symbols from such central edifices than to engage widely dispersed farmers tending herds and tilling rural fields—those on the forefront of belief, but who were not within easy reach from comfortable apartments in the city.

When Episcopal priest John A. Sanford wrote in The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings (Lippincott, 1970), “We have . . . in Jesus of Nazareth the paradigm of the whole person, the prototype of all human development,” he makes clear that he is speaking of an idealized concept of a perfect man, not any person who might actually have lived. Leaving the faithful yearning to connect with the living force that provides for them in producing the crops and herds they actually eat to gain nourishment for bodies that sweat, get sick, grow old, and fail, not with some idealized exemplar whose body and blood they might pretend to ingest as a ritualized diet for the soul. No calories, true, but no real nutrients for the spirit either. Leaving seasonal renewal out of the picture, church dogma became a hollow conceit taken on faith, not in the light of actual experience.

Of lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, E. O. James writes of one deity who stayed in touch with the people, a deity who provided the foil of anathema to orthodox teachings throughout much of Hebrew and Christian scripture:

Once Prince Baal “became ‘the lord of the furrows of the field’ responsible for the rain and the kindly fruits of the earth, a series of temples were erected in his honour in Palestine and Syria in and after the fourteenth century B.C.” (From Cave to Cathedral, page 169).

In nearby Egypt, the ankh was a symbol of eternal life, as the cross subsequently became in Christianity. But one cannot eat symbols; they are food for the disembodied mind. The mind Goddesses of budding flowers, offerings, and happiness, bearing gifts of long life. Fifth Dynasty.embedded in its mortal frame craves a more substantial diet bearing, beyond flavor, both energy and nutrition. It is that diet I am trying to get at in writing this post because such food, indeed, sustains us and makes us who we are. That is the universal food humans require to keep going, no matter where they might live aside from their respective mental caves. Organized religions give us preinterpreted symbols when what we are starved for is raw sensory patterns most strange and wonderful—something to celebrate, not to obey.

It is the role of consciousness to guide us toward such a food supply that we may nourish ourselves—we who are minds in bodies with emotions, senses, thoughts, ideas, judgments, and capacities for action—to make ourselves whole, caring, and wise. That is, to conduct our day-to-day lives in such a way to transcend the limited vessels we have become in order to place our personal handprints as a mark of full witness and approval on life as we actually live it and not the pretend life others would have us lead for their benefit, or we would lead to please them.

I am talking here about leading an original life worthy of our personal uniqueness bestowed on us by our genetic heritage, prenatal life, early experiences, schooling, training, job history, native haunts, and the times in which we live. No two of us are alike. Yet our culture sorts us into crude bins (e.g., True Believers and Heretics) and expects us to behave as we are profiled and sorted by others, regardless of who we know ourselves to be. With the sorry result that we become creatures of our run-of-the-mill culture and not of our unique, individually conscious selves. Instead of consuming more and more goods, we do better to savor the sensory evidence that is ours alone, so to arouse a sense of connectedness with a beautiful world, to stir thankfulness that we are fully present to that world, and to activate primal values to prove we are fully engaged and alive. In short, we want to reach up and blow a handprint from inside our minds onto the only world that will take us just as we are, adding our personal energy and fullness to the universe of all being.

I am aiming for transcendence here. A jolt of energy-releasing transcendence lifting us into that true and higher life binding us to all that is—principally to the Earth, our only home in the darkness of space, and to all of Earth’s peoples of every tribe—that’s what I’m writing about. Is that too much to ask or even contemplate? In spite of our frailty, we can reach that high if we choose to enter the cave of our minds and keep trending toward that goal. We all know more than our credentials seem to warrant, in very personal ways that build on our unique perspectives instead of denying or denigrating them. Our value on Earth lies precisely in our gifts to one another of our personal uniqueness, not our assumed sameness with everyone else. Lives suitable to our heritage and experience cannot be bought off the shelf. We have to tailor them from the scraps we are given, and keep sewing for the rest of our lives. Transcendence is that easy—and that hard.

I will end with an item lifted from an e-mail my brother sent me today:

Re Time Magazine in the dentist’s office [see Reflection 198: Of Heroics & Aesthetics]:  I remember covering a symposium on Canadian art in Washington DC and hearing the director of the Innuit Gallery in Toronto say, ‘There’s a communications satellite in the sky now beaming down American television on them [Eskimos] and in one generation the spiritual content of their artwork is going to be gone.’ Perhaps no single sentence I ever heard in my entire life depressed me as much as this one. I did the only thing I could—bought a piece of Eskimo sculpture and two prints before that happened.

Hunting FamilyWalrusesMary Igiu, People of the Sea 

 

 

Your Handprint in This space

(Copyright © 2010)

This blog is an extension of a project I started in July, 2006 in a summer research seminar led by the Quaker Institute for the Future at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Each member worked for a month on a project in an atmosphere of communal discernment, making several presentations to the group, offering comments and suggestions in an atmosphere of mutual trust. My project was a Power-Point promoting resolution of conflicts over marine issues on the Maine coast. How, I asked, could people come to mutual agreement on issues they approached from divergent points of view? My conclusion was that human consciousness is such a personal matter, there is no way fully to appreciate another’s perspective. Mapping our life experiences onto our respective worlds as we do, we effectively live in parallel universes ruled by different assumptions, customs, rules, and desires, making agreement about anything extremely difficult.

Which didn’t advance my project idea very far, if at all. Following the seminar, I put together several more detailed presentations, each falling short of my ambitions. It struck me I might be working in the wrong medium, so took to blogging about consciousness as an alternative route to the same goal. After 199 posts, am I any further along than I was? Yes and no. I have developed several new ways of looking at the problem, and broadened my respect for the difficulty of what I am trying to do, which I see now, comes with the territory of being human. Consciousness is a very flexible tool for overcoming short-term difficulties, but it is less helpful in the long term because rooted in the practical here and now, not the necessarily conceptual then of the future.

In effect, at the same time they are the bases we stand on, our past ways often prevent us from taking new positions in unfamiliar situations. And every new day is an unfamiliar situation (if it’s not, it’s not a new day). Changing our ways requires we give up old habits of making ourselves happen in the universe. If we can’t slough the skin we present to the world, then it’s bound to become dry and disfiguring. Is that what we want—to cling to what we’ve already become? Or can we keep up with changing times by incorporating new factors into our makeup?

On that note, I went back to Reflection 1: Dying Crow, to see where I was when I began this series of posts. Here’s the “snippet” of consciousness I dealt with in October 2008:

I am driving along a country road and see a dead crow ahead. No, not dead, a dying crow—its wing feebly flapping the air. A shadow on the edge of the shoulder showing signs of life. What should I do? For me, this is a worst-case scenario. I can’t just drive by and leave it to suffer. I am aware of strong feelings welling within me. I don’t want to stop and wring its neck, but what else can I do? I’d rather keep going. I am conflicted. Then, as I approach the dying crow, I see it differently—a trash bag blowing in the wind. Yes, definitely, a black plastic bag agitated by the wash from passing cars. Relieved, I drive on.

Categorization, that’s what I was dealing with. Mapping my values, attitudes, and experience onto the world—and getting it wrong. I caught myself in the act of falsely projecting my fears and assumptions onto an innocent phenomenon—a dark, shifting shape by the side of the road. In that instant, I confront not a dying crow but my own consciousness remaking the world to suit itself.

In Reflection 4: Crash, I did exactly the same thing in seeing a swept-back, metal TV antenna gleaming in sunlight as a crashing airplane. In Reflection 6, I saw a complete stranger ahead of me on the sidewalk as my friend, Fred, because he was dressed as Fred would have dressed and walked with a similar gait. Erroneously mapping concepts onto my immediate surroundings, that’s where I began this blog. I didn’t use the word “categorization” because it wasn’t in my working vocabulary, but I see now that’s what I was dealing with.

In Reflection 3: Mia Culpa, I tell of looking for a jar of mustard—and not finding it anywhere—even though I looked right at it several times in my search. What could happen to a jar of mustard, a fixture in my very idea of kitchen and refrigerator? What did happen was that it was lying on its side, presenting a round, red top, not the half-full, bent-sided jar I had in mind. Wrong gestalt. I had the wrong image of what I was looking for. The pattern I was seeking didn’t exist because it had morphed into an unconventional view I didn’t associate with mustard. One of life’s minor situations, and an occasion for learning about my habitual search strategies. Categorization, again, gone sour. Casting trite expectations onto my little world, I came up empty-handed and still hungry. 

In Reflection 5: Sunflowers, I told of going upstairs to get something, and not seeing a bunch of huge sunflowers in a vase that I passed within six inches of while both coming and going. I was so fixated on whatever I’d come after as to be functionally blind. “Do you like the sunflowers?” asks Carole. “What sunflowers?” says I. Again, a void in my personal space because, for me, sunflowers weren’t the issue, so I wasn’t looking for them. And I don’t seem to see what I’m not looking for. Expectancy, attention, and categorization are key in how I map my mind onto the world, making the world I construe for myself absolutely my personal world. Anyone coming right behind me would construct a different world based on her expectations, attention, and habitual modes of categorization.

All of which have consequences. In Reflection 10: Diagnosis, I told of going to an eminent doctor who, thinking I had cystic fibrosis, put me in hospital for a week of tests intended to confirm his hunch. Except they didn’t. He released me, not having a clue what I had (which, as it turned out thirty years later, was celiac disease all along). Diagnosis is how we decide between our options for categorizing particular patterns that interest us. It is a way of getting hold of the pattern so we’re sure it’s this one and not that one. Putting a name to a pattern of symptoms, we then apply the standard remedy or customary course of treatment. Who are we? Diagnosticians, every one. Or cartographers, bent on mapping our expectancies onto phenomena that matter to us. Then acting (rightly or wrongly) on the basis of the diagnosis we have mapped out.

In Reflection 37: Terms of Endearment, I blogged about giving names to persons or things that change our lives. In hindsight, I see I was dealing with an aspect of categorization by relying on prior experience in becoming conscious of something new:

In naming loved ones, babies, pets, boats, towns, mountains, and constellations in the sky, we give meaning to particular phenomena in our experience, while at the same time, giving concrete form to values which are important to us. Naming is a simultaneous giving and taking within consciousness, a giving of ourselves and a taking-in of the world, claiming it as our world.

Naming is applied intentionality, a defining characteristic of consciousness:

Looking for, seeing as, consciousness of—this is how we fit the world to preconceived plans. We take those plans with us wherever we go. We bring the world into being as a variation on the intentional order we carry in our heads.

Scary, to think that how we name our children and our pets reveals who we are. But there it is: consciousness projecting itself onto patterns in our heads, and those named patterns becoming features of the world we wrap ourselves in. Other cultures, other people—other quilts for consciousness.

Throughout this blog, I have tried to deal with metaphor as a variant form of intentionality, also deliberately applied. Intentionality is habitual categorization, representing a personal style of mapping concepts derived from prior experiences onto patterns that emerge in everyday life. Which is exactly what categorization does for us in giving meaning to sensory patterns and relationships. When personal meanings are an issue, metaphor tells the world emphatically how we see it in light of our experience.

Humor, too, reveals categorizations by setting up a conceptual framework or situation that is fulfilled by a specific punch line, resolving a tense situation (because of frustrated or confounded expectancy) in an apt yet novel manner, eliciting laughter—our stock response to nonthreatening surprises.

Categorization is a basic feature of consciousness that surfaces in almost everything we do. Human understanding is a form of categorization—of lending character to the world based on how we choose to depict it from our point of view. The bulk of this blog, it turns out in hindsight, deals with aspects of categorizing as a key aspect of mind. Dying crows, crashing planes, missing mustard jars, strangers mistaken for friends, sunflowers not seen, naming, metaphors, humor—here in each case is meaning-making in action, the human mind at work trying to find sense in its relevant universe by mapping abstract concepts from the past onto sensory patterns in the here and the now.

It was Gerald M. Edelman who gave me the word “categorization,” which he distinguishes from the philosophical sort by calling “perceptual categorization.” In the Glossary to Wider than the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness (Yale, 2004), he lists perceptual categorization as, “The process by which the brain ‘carves the world up’ to yield adaptive categories. The most fundamental of early cognitive functions.” Reading his works this past winter, I realized he and I were talking about similar aspects of mind using different words. In addition, Edelman suggests not only a neural substrate, but an evolutionary or adaptive origin as well, both of which lie beyond my limited experience. Seeing categorization as the central core of consciousness, I switched to Edelman’s way of thinking, trying to work my way into the concept, which keeps growing larger and more encompassing in my understanding. It provides a fitting culmination to this blog, letting me tie much of what I have written together—a major categorizational shift in my way of thinking.

I call this next-to-last post (I am retiring for now) “Letting Go” because one part of categorization I haven’t dealt with is how we grow to become more discriminating categorizers by letting go of, or transcending, the limits imposed on our seeing-the-world by the narrowness of our lived experience. If conflict resolution between those who see the world differently is an issue, then I believe the best solution might be to let go of our conflictive selves in order to grow into larger persons with broader abilities to find meaning in the patterns we see in the world. It’s OK for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims, atheists to be atheists, people to be who they are because they cannot reinvent themselves as someone else. Clearly, this requires self-transcendence of us all. If our categorizations become hardened because written in stone for all time, we are incapable of waking up to a new day. When, in fact, every day is given us as a new challenge because the past no longer exists. It is up to us to keep up with the sun and the seasons by renewing ourselves to meet the challenge of today, not those of yesterday, or thousands of years before that.

I say we need to discover more humor in our rigid categorizations by rising above ourselves and looking down, seeing ourselves as characters in a story (or is it a joke?). That is, of letting go the chains we wrap round our minds as if we were creatures, not of the instant, but of all time, ever the same because we are trapped in our minds and cannot get out.

Did Moses know it all? Did Jesus? Mohammed? Shaping ourselves in their image by repeating words ascribed to them, we become cardboard cutouts of so many smiling waiters or waitresses bringing trays filled with mugs of beer to assure our satisfaction and happiness. As if a particular brand of beer—or religion—held the answer to all questions. As if loyal or even orthodox adherence to the past was the way to the future. As if we knew now what the future will bring, and it will be as we describe it, without fail. As if each day was not new, but only an opportunity for us to cram it into the mold of the past to fit concepts we have in mind because that is the only way we can reliably know who we are. As if we were not flesh-and-blood humans but creatures of stone, much like the terracotta warriors of China.

In truth, consciousness has the power to reinvent itself in response to the situation each of us finds him-or-herself in today. We may not be able to beam ourselves into new bodies, but we can transcend the limits we put on ourselves yesterday and the day before. Indeed, it is we who bind our minds with steel bands lest we think a new thought or dream of casting-off our old, worn-out personalities and tired ideas. They are already dead; all we need do is let go and shed them as our former selves. It is not written anywhere that who we were is who we are for all time. That is a trap laid by unsupple minds to catch themselves changing and growing into new selves more suited to the new day. It’s as if people were holding their breath, stopping their blood from flowing, not thinking new thoughts. Not daring to live.

One thing is certain: rigidity of consciousness is a catatonic state of mind that locks the living world into a dead cartoon of the world as it might be if we but opened our eyes. What are we to do? Release the past from the chains we’ve put round it and let it go. I am not—and cannot be—the child I was, or the man I hoped to become. I am wholly other because I have given myself to my environment as it flows through my senses. I am none other than a creature of my time and place on this planet. I turn with the Earth so that I can be fully what it makes of me. That way, I evolve. That is the only way I can enjoy the ride—which is the trip of a lifetime. My lifetime. My days as a conscious son of the Earth.

No, they don’t teach that in school. Everyone is too anxious to leave young minds up to chance. We invent curriculums and standardized tests, which are mental chains in themselves. Think of the irony of a gang of unique kids being herded into one end of the education system and cranked out as a uniform standard product at the other end. What has been lost in the process is the quality of individual uniqueness, sole fount of imagination, invention, and ultimately, survival under ever-changing yet unique circumstances and conditions. That is, our humanity has been stripped away because, by biological definition, each of us is unlike any other.

What a difference it makes to conceive of yourself as a unique being instead of a replica of everyone else. That way, you can reinvent yourself as you choose and don’t have to live up to the identity laid upon you by the expectations of your peers. Are you living for them? Is that how it is? They are your guides and masters, your controllers? Your life is an extension of theirs? If so, that is because you have already surrendered and are dead but don’t know it.

Let go of all that. Open yourself to discovery. Let the world in through your senses, not those of celebrities, columnists, loud talkers, or pundits. Activate your own mapping skills so that you live in your own personal territory, not the cell assigned to you. That territory is in your head and belongs solely to you. Never trade it away for any reason. Live by your own wits, not the dictates of others. Open yourself to the sensory patterns flowing around you; immerse yourself in them. Deal with the patterns of your time and your place on this Earth. Then lay meaning on those patterns as best you can account for them. And act on those meanings to see if they are accurate or not. If not, try again—something different this time. Not always the same as if you were a stone warrior, a true believer in the single, true faith.

That’s what I mean by “letting go.” Really, becoming yourself and fulfilling the potential you were born to. Is there any other way to live? Evidently there is—many of us dragging in chains our whole lives, thinking thoughts approved by others in advance. And consorting only with those who categorize their sensory worlds as we do, because it is much too dangerous to stake out individual territories for ourselves.

With the result that we are not truly alive, or truly ourselves, but are some kind of zooid living out a life sentence, hoping it will end soon, without pain or mishap. Which means not taking the risk of making ourselves happen in the world as if each of us were an individual capable of independent action, thought, and responsibility. Trapped by outdated ideas, we live in the old days, as we have been taught. Discovering freedom requires us to let go of all that. We have the mental equipment to do it. And a methodology for knowing ourselves as categorizers and sensory pattern detectors (go back and read this blog if you missed that part) who make their own worlds. Mental chains are a challenge meant to be mastered—as Alexander undid the Gordian Knot.

Gordian Knot Pattern

 

(Copyright © 2010)

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

        T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, part 5

Is there no forward motion, then? Only the same round  again and again? Must I travel in circles? By different routes, I keep coming back to the same thing. Winding down this blog, I am not far from the mental state I was in twenty-eight years ago. I find myself making similar discoveries, or perhaps rehashing the same intuitions in different terms. What I then called “a resonant synthesis of meaning and being,” I now refer to as “the categorization of sensory patterns.”  Unhappy with either phrase because not expressed in plain English, I wonder if it has been worth it—trying to get a grip on the inner workings of my own mind. Am I in any better position to understand—so to remedy—the problems of my time? Or am I on a fool’s errand?

Words, being a social medium, impose the history of their use on the choice of any particular word to express a private thought. I despise the word categorization as sounding so pretentious, so academic, so foreign, so Greek. It is not a word I would normally use, but these days I use it in almost every post, as if repetition would somehow make it more acceptable. I think of it as Aristotle’s word, or Immanuel Kant’s. It doesn’t feel like my word. I have failed to come up with a better word for describing a big part of my personal consciousness.

To categorize is to describe the world in terms that are personally meaningful. That’s why I use it—it says what I mean. But it doesn’t sound like me in my own ears. So I cringe every time I ask my fingers to type that dread sequence of letters. The interesting thing, though, is what kategorein means in Greek—to publically accuse or assert (kata- down, egor- to speak in public). We use it in the sense (via Latin) of to declare or proclaim, that is, to state the nature or character of a person, thing, or event. To categorize something is to make public a claim it is as I see it. Categorization, then, is the outward expression of a mental notion, of a concept or an idea.

How else could I say that to be less formal or academic? The word mapping sounds more friendly to me. Categorization is the mapping of a concept from consciousness onto something in our phenomenal world. It is the categorizer who does the mapping, so responsibility for what he does is solely his. Naming is another friendly term for what we do when we categorize. One problem with names, however, is we often think of them as properties of persons or objects themselves, not as labels or designations applied by others. As if a spade (object) were strictly a spade (name) and not a shovel, digging implement, or trowel. What’s in a name? I find I am bothered by mail addressed to Steven Perrin instead of to Steve or Stephen Perrin. It’s an easy mistake, and there is no way to know if Steve is short for Steven or Stephen. What troubles me is that, without thinking, people lay their assumptions on how I spell my own name, which I take as a slight. Sensitive? You bet! But there it is. Names matter. Categorizations matter.

Historically, they have changed over time as Latin replaced Greek as an international language, then evolved into French, which merged with Anglo-Saxon into Old English, then became modern English. With the result that we forget what terms once meant, and bring in new terms of our own, replacing simple old names with verbal concoctions. In Words and Places (Everyman’s Library, originally published 1864), Isaac Taylor gives examples of concatenated place names made up of bits and pieces contributed by different cultures:

In the name of Brindon Hill, in Somersetshire, we have first the Cymric bryn, a hill. To this was added dun, a Saxonised Celtic word, nearly synonymous with bryn; and the English word hill was added when neither bryn nor dun were any longer significant words.

Pen-dle-hill, in Lancashire, is similarly compounded of three synonymous words—the Cymric pen, the Norse holl, and the English hill. In Pen-tlow Hill, in Essex, we have the Celtic pen, the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, and the English hill. Shar-pen-hoe-knoll, in Bedfordshire, contains four nearly synonymous elements.

Why use four syllables when the meaning of each is the same, and one of them would do? These terms are monuments to human forgetfulness, reminding us that categorizations are projections of the human mind, not labels of things as what they are in themselves.

Name-calling is a clear example of characterization conveying an attitude: you turkey, you imbecile, you darling, you angel, you pig. It is a very different act to apply the name pig to a pig or a person. But thinking about it, a pig isn’t a pig on its own; it takes a person to dub a pig a pig, cochon, Schwein, cerdo, or maiale, depending on whether that person speaks English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. The pigness of a pig is clearly in the ear of the categorizer.

Once we get beyond the standoffish (to us) quality of foreign words, the idea of categorization (recognition, mapping, naming) is clear enough. After casting our concepts outward, the hard part is accepting that the world as we perceive it is a phenomenal version of the world, a rendition by our sensory apparatus, different for each one of us, depending on our motivation at the time, our interest, arousal, attention, level of discrimination, and other aspects of consciousness. The world in itself is other than we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or intuit. Imagine the world of a bird that can detect Earth’s magnetic field with sensors in its eyes; imagine the world of a shark, skate, or ray that can read electrical signals sent out by the nervous system of prey species buried in sand, gravel, or mud. Like ants, moles, worms, and bumblebees, such species, too, would claim to see the world “as it is,” but theirs would be a very different world from the one we claim to know.

Within our own species, individuals see the world differently. For example, here is something I read this morning in Harper’s Magazine of Jan. 2010, from a piece by Charles Bowden,  “The Wisdom of Rats”:

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not.

Different observers, different worlds, that is the law of consciousness. Not that there’s nothing “out there,” it’s that each of us renders it to suit himself in the moment. If I am hungry, I notice food; if I am wet, I look for shelter; if I am cold, I seek warmth; if I am lonely, I wish for company; if I am frazzled, I retire into solitude. Narrowing the search, we find what we look for, but that’s only the beginning. Our personal worlds are functions of our size, sensory acuteness, ability to discriminate one thing from another, prior experience, genetic makeup, chemical environment in the womb, childhood development, rearing, schooling, training, job history, higher education, and on and on. The one world may be out there, but the phenomenal worlds we entertain in consciousness are different for each individual. Consequently, we respond in different ways to those phenomenal worlds, so behave as uniquely ourselves.

There is no known standard for any so-called objective world. We do not perceive material objects directly as they “are,” but construe them from the energy they emit, reflect, block, or diffract (as voyagers in the Pacific could navigate in relation to wave fronts in the lee of an island they could not see). Kicking an object (such as a tire on a used car or a cardboard box at the side of the road) is as good a way as any to check on the solidity of an object, but it says little about what that object might be.

In earlier posts I have mentioned apparent motions of sun, moon, planets, and stars, apparent colors, apparent sounds (such as speech or music)—none of which is the same in the world of objects as it appears in phenomenal consciousness. Things seem to grow smaller as they move away from us, and we accept that illusion as natural, even though we know that a locomotive does not actually grow in size as it approaches or smaller as it passes us by. Looking down from the upper floors of a tall building, we remark how small people on the street are, even though we know that on their level they are probably of average size.

People categorize their phenomenal worlds in order to act more-or-less appropriately in situations they can construe but cannot directly engage beyond consciousness. Consciousness, that is, enables an ongoing loop of engagement between  individual actors and their surroundings by which specific gestures are traded for sensory input, followed by a series of adjusted gestures and revised inputs, mediated by personal judgments, values, goals, and prior experience. In two sentences, that is the gist of the 199 posts to this blog. We the people are motivated categorizers of sensory impressions. The worlds we live in are parallel universes rendered by our brains in creating personal consciousness.

Which may be true for individuals (personal consciousness being the topic of this blog), but what about the collective consciousness of people acting in groups? After 199 posts, that is the new beginning I am faced with, the flip side of individual consciousness that can be known through introspection. Corporate personhood and the “right” to bear arms are two examples of beliefs held in common by groups made up of disparate individuals. Beliefs may be hatched in individual consciousness, but as items on a group’s agenda, they become aggrandized as issues, principles, rights, or policies, and so become larger than notions, concepts, or ideas in individual minds. Trying to grasp individual consciousness is daunting enough, but collective or corporate consciousness adds layer-upon-layer of difficulty on top of that. The issue then becomes the mental underpinnings of behavior exhibited by people acting in groups, not the relatively simpler matter of individual consciousness in relation to one person’s independent acts.

Mixing levels of consciousness, seen from my personal point of view, corporate personhood becomes an out-and-out oxymoron. For corporations to be considered persons, they would have to have brains and some semblance of consciousness. But corporations are entities chartered by the various states, not living beings. Though they may have members and employees who have brains and are conscious for themselves, corporations as such are demonstrably both brainless and mindless. Ask a corporation to categorize some aspect of its world and it will refer the job to an attorney who does have both a brain and a mind; the corporation as an entity chartered on paper is not up to the task.

Yet corporations exist and are considered legal persons under the law, allowing a group of people to act within certain specified limits as a corporate individual. This legal fiction confounds true and make-believe entities, magically bestowing rights and qualities of living persons upon chartered bodies (orchestras, alliances, unions, partnerships, companies, corporations) as if they were mortal beings and not so many origami tigers without wits or judgment. But, looking around, I see many similar fictions alive and well in the culture I live in. There is a trend in corporate thinking to allow for convenient fictions that fail any test of reality beyond the fact that it pleases us to act as if we believed in them. I have written in this blog about The Wizard of Oz, who is as real to me as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, or Isaac Newton.

Does it matter that we have a hard time differentiating fiction from truth? Considering the wealth concentrated in modern multinational corporations, and the legal expertise in their employ, yes, it becomes a serious question because of the influence and leverage such impersonal entities wield in the affairs of natural persons. Corporate persons have vastly greater powers to control the media, lobby Congress, sway the Supreme Court, and determine election results than ordinary citizens do. Corporate personhood mocks the principle of one person, one vote, which underlies our democratic form of government. Does that matter? Is pitting corporate versus individual resources likely to lead to a fair contest? Is democracy itself just a myth?

No slope is slipperier than corporate personhood because the combination of corporate policy, expertise, and funding trumps hard-won, mere-mortal judgments every time. We the people are disheartened: the courts have stolen our nation out from under us. The struggle for independence never ends.

Miscategorizing a corporation as a person is contrary to any system of law that claims to be reasoned and compassionate. If corporations can play at being persons, why not dogs and cats? Pigeons? Rats? Which brings me back to Charles Bowden’s piece in Harper’s:

The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Categorizations such as corporate personhood are creations of what Gerald Edelman calls higher-order consciousness. Rats are endowed with primary consciousness, which deals with a phenomenal world interpreted in light, not of concepts, but of innate biological values—sex, food, drink, and more sex, food, and drink. It is not corporate personhood itself that will prove our undoing, but our helpless putting-up with it. If our higher-order consciousness allows us to categorize it as a crazy, irrational, illegal power-grab, that leaves us helpless because these are not arguments admissible in a court of law, which is where the problem lies. On a social level, courts are the deciders of which categorizations are legal and which are not. For now, while rats and judges creep among us in the dark, it’s OK for corporations to act as if they were persons, which everybody knows they are not, but if the Supreme Court rules it’s OK, then it must be OK.

Leaving me to wonder, is there any such thing as higher-order social consciousness? Have we reached the point in our evolution where that might emerge? As it is, court decisions serve the interests of those who write legislation and the judges who back them up. Corporate personhood is alive and well in our age, as is the right to bear arms, so I feel I am ahead of my time. And I don’t see higher-order social consciousness emerging anytime soon. The trend, in fact, appears to be running the other way. How long can the right to be a fully conscious, independent person last before being declared unconstitutional?

To end this post, I will return to the beginning of the rule of law in this nation, to the Preamble of the Constitution, which, in case you might have forgotten, reads as follows:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The thirty-nine signers of the Constitution in 1787 were all able-bodied categorizers and witnesses to the sensory phenomena kindled within them in their time. They had not yet surrendered the right to keep and exercise their independent consciousness. What they left out of the document was a provision for protecting the people once the checks and balances they provided were ignored or subverted by, for example, a President who makes his own law, a Congress that can be bought by lobbyists, or a Supreme Court with tenure “during good behavior” (no matter how obliquely it categorizes the law of the land).

 Ouroboros: End as beginning

(Copyright © 2010)

I am ever the hero of my own little drama as I act it out in my head. It can’t be otherwise because I am the author and sole interpreter of the script as it is revealed to me (that is, as I make it up minute by minute). My life is a performance of my story, first concocted in my head, then performed on the virtual (from my point of view) stage of the unknowable world. Picture me behind the door of my mind—the one with the star—posing in my dressing gown before a full-length mirror, mouthing the words I am rehearsing for the grand performance I’m to give in a few moments. If you were lucky, you’d be in the audience. Too bad you can’t make the show because you are rehearsing your own performance before your own full-length mirror in a different dressing room, also with a star on the door.

We are heroes to ourselves because we can do no wrong. Even when we commit stupid or cruel acts, we are automatically off the hook because, no matter how others see us, we appear blameless to ourselves. Self-interest is our only motive, so by definition we have to be right because we can always justify what we do. It is they, those others, who are at fault—they just don’t understand.

Each a hero in her own eyes; what a wonderful system. Perfection itself on two legs, facing the world, looking about for yet more heroic labors worthy of our talents and strengths. Whatever feats others may perform, we can do better. Why waste time pretending to be modest if in all honesty we’re the greatest? I mean, what-is-the-point? Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If corporations ever got on to the power of categorization so they were able to set the terms in which we all see the world, there’d be hell to pay.

If we manage to do no harm by living our span to the fullest, then a self-assertive life such as I have described in those first three paragraphs amounts to a comedy. But despite our good intentions, we are never as innocent as we claim. Others do without basic necessities so that we may live higher on the hog than they can imagine. Eyes straight ahead, we are only dimly aware of the ruin in our wake. With an automobile, I have killed pheasants, dogs, cats, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, dragonflies, and thousands of others. I have been trained as a killer by the U.S. Army; I don’t doubt that my training was successful on occasion, even well after the fact. But there I go again, blaming my training, while the true killer is the self that I am whose hungers demand to be fed.

Our myopic perspectives and insatiable appetites render life more tragic than comic. Think of the innocents slaughtered in our name (beef cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and thousands of plants, many of which bear genes similar to our own). We live at far greater expense than we know or choose to bother ourselves about.

All because we categorize and sort the world for personal gain as we imagine it, without consulting others in advance. Selfish and glib, that’s what we are. I know, I am one who has shaped the world to his advantage as long as he can remember. Not deliberately or knowingly, perhaps, but effectively that is how I have lived my life. Following my nose, which means following the dictates of self-interest and personal advantage. The difference between me following my nose and Bernie Madoff following his is he’s in prison and I’m not. Or if I am in fact behind bars, those bars are the steely cage around my consciousness, armoring the very wits by which I survive.

I use such imagery to describe the categorizing aspect of consciousness because we cannot avoid casting our most self-serving concepts upon sensory patterns representing what we can know of the world. With the exception of messages from great corporations, those phenomenal patterns do not come to us presorted and pre-categorized; it is we who bend them to our purposes by seeing them from our unique points of view as recorded in our personal histories of concept formation, cleaned and gutted of telling details, hollowed-out for general utility later on, leaving only husks, not the essence. Categorization—recognizing the “true” nature of things—is not an impartial act; we are invested in what uses we can make of a thing for our personal advancement, so bestow categories on it that will serve us well later on. A spade is not just a spade nor a rose simply a rose; in each case they are functionally what we make them out to be. A spade can kill, a rose ingratiate us with others who will owe future favors.

Machiavelli didn’t come out of the blue; he was the product of his own urge to survive. So, too, de Sade. And Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, who wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” I say all survival is based on deception, particularly of the self. To us, our miscategorizations always appear fair and just. The self is in full command of its resources and does not submit to casual scrutiny. You have to infer its self-deceptions from its actual deeds. That makes it all the easier to confound its dictates with truth or reality, subject of my last post (Reflection 197: Backing Off).

Our entire neural apparatus intercedes between the self and its grasp of the world. Our senses don’t deliver the world-as-it-is to our doorstep, they bring us images transduced and reformulated by our sensory system—the world being at least once removed as translated into the neural language of action potentials and flowing neurotransmitters. Which memory scans for familiar patterns in order to categorize what we hear (see, touch, taste, smell) in terms of concepts made meaningful by prior experience. At every step of our life journey we reinvent ourselves and the situation we’re faced with based on patterns we’ve encountered before and the concepts we’ve derived from them. The world as-it-is-in-itself never enters our minds.

No matter how subtle, most categorizations are heroic distortions for personal gain in being consistent with biological values inherent in the self—namely you and me. Our meanings lie ready, waiting to seize on familiar neural signals. The perceptual side of consciousness is concerned with sensory patterns and relationships, and so is more cordial in being ruled by curiosity about, and interest in, what’s out there than by survival at any cost. Categorization answers questions raised by curiosity about the world, but personal aesthetics first decide what’s relevant and what isn’t. I don’t mean aesthetics focused solely on beauty; I mean picking up on sensory patterns and relationships apart from any meaning they may have for us. That is, sensory signals as not yet—but soon to be—recognized and categorized. Such as the tonal makeup and rhythms of a familiar voice or piece of music; the shape, size, color, and motion of a familiar bird; the feel of our fingers wrapping around the steering wheel of our family car; the scent of Spanish rice as Mother used to make it.

The mapping of categories onto sensory patterns, and vice versa, are two of the major achievements of consciousness. Experience and awareness meet in constituting a current moment of engagement with our world. The salience or relevance of the signal can be in attention or memory, but categorizing a sensory episode as a meaningful experience is our doing in either case. We are fulfilled in being simultaneous pattern detectors and categorizers in that moment. When our personal histories coincide with the sensory now, we are on familiar ground and know our options for making an appropriate response to the situation we’re in. The past claims the now, moving our heroic-aesthetic self one notch toward the future.

We are so quick to draw categories from our quiver, we come to think sensory patterns come to us with meanings attached to them, as if they were meaningful in and of themselves. But even if we are in our everyday mode of categorization, we are the ones responsible for bringing sensory inputs and conceptual meanings together. The meaning isn’t in the music or the image, it is in us. Always in us. If the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pour out of the radio and there’s no one to hear it, then the sounds go unrecognized, and the radio may be turned on, but Beethoven’s Fifth is not playing. If the sensory-pattern recognizer and categorizer is absent, then for all practical purposes the moment is lost. Think of a car skidding off the road, hitting a tree, killing the driver, with the radio playing relentlessly to his unhearing ears and lifeless body. Is the radio still playing? To one discovering the scene, perhaps, but not to the late driver.

Categorization takes time—on the order of a few tenths of a second. It is possible to live in the gap between pattern reception and the act of recognition that fits it to a category. We can prolong that gap as long as we please by focusing solely on sensory patterns and their internal relationships, dispensing with conceptual meanings as irrelevant—as we often do in listening to music without words, scanning the surface of a painting, savoring scents on a damp day in fall, and walking in woods or along the shore—giving ourselves to our surroundings instead of claiming to know them in advance.

As a photographer for the Information Service at Iowa State University in 1960, I used to photograph boxing matches and basketball games, giving my total attention to the action in the ring or under the basket. I was so engaged in my personal zone, I lived to anticipate what was about to happen because if I waited to find out, it was too late to click the shutter. Peering at the scene through the viewfinder of my camera, living in that space, when the match or game was over, I had to ask to find out who’d won.

Yes, sounds dumb, and it was because I had no use for speech and meaning. Just as when I visit galleries and avoid reading what the artist says about a painting or photograph, or even the label of what I am looking at. I don’t want titles or grand ideas, I want the visual experience, which the title or blurb takes away from me so that I know about the image without experiencing it for myself. In such a case, words are not the issue. They are someone else’s categorizations, and I have no interest in them. Later, perhaps, but not now. Not till I’ve pushed the experience as far as I can take it, exploring the image, noting the colors and their relationships, textures, shapes, angles, brushstrokes, making the image live in me so that I have a personal acquaintance with it. That way, I still see the world through my own eyes. Maybe later, I’ll bother to read what someone else has to say about it.

I still recall being disappointed when I led a group of eleventh graders on an excursion through woods where I wanted them to learn about their natural surroundings by touch, smell, sound—any way but sight (see Reflection 149: Blind Walk). Pairing up, one partner was to assure the safety of the other who, blindfolded, explored her surroundings by hand, ear, and nose. But despite my instructions, everyone made a guessing game of the exercise, the presumed object being to shout out the name of each object encountered. For them, the name said it all; sensory experience was beside the point. Which, I realized sadly, was the result of the schooling we run our children through in making them dutiful inductees into our culture. The label—the right answer—is of the essence; personal experience is not part of the curriculum. I was trying to awaken my students to sensory details they could use to enliven their writing, but had to work harder than I planned to get that message across.

Listening to music without words is one of the best ways I know of to experience the pre-categorical, sensory aspect of consciousness. Jazz and classical music work equally well; ballads less well because the words steal the show. The trick is to give yourself to the notes themselves as they rise and fall in time, noticing their duration, their tonal relationships, the quality of the different notes, the interacting voices of the instruments, echoes and repetitions, larger or smaller leaps than you expect, comparing where you think the music is going to where it actually leads, and so on. That way, you make each piece your own because you have lived inside it in your own consciousness, not merely followed along at a distance.

Abstract painting is a great medium for exploring visual relationships between different shapes, hues, values, textures,  sizes, and orientations of patches of color. It is such Thank you, Franz Klinerelationships that turn different patches into patterns of visual stimulation, elevating discrete sensory differences into an overall design which holds together because its internal workings add to something larger than themselves. Faced with an abstract by Franz Kline, for instance, seen from the right distance, the eye never stops ricocheting around the surface, darting to every corner in search of the next salient feature, knitting the parts into a stimulating and satisfying whole. Don’t take my word for it, words are irrelevant. Just give of yourself in free exploration and see what you find.

If we don’t explore sensory patterns before we categorize them as this or that, we may lose the opportunity because habit is apt to take over and short-circuit fresh perception altogether. I have mentioned in an earlier post the distinguished historian of science who put a print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk—and never saw it again. We have to make a deliberate effort to notice sensory patterns when we have the chance, or they may well disappear as so much cultural wallpaper. I remember staying home from school as a kid because I was sick, and getting so tired of hearing the same old chestnuts favored by radio stations in Syracuse—in those days The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rhapsody in Blue—that I still associate them with canned chicken soup and ginger ale. Try to really listen to Ravel’s Bolero and see how long you last.

No frill to me, aesthetics is the high art of noticing. Of really paying attention to sensory details wherever I find them. Of giving myself to life in order that life will give itself to me. When I don’t make the effort, life glides right past me like so many telephone poles by the side of the road. This is what I mean by “being there,” putting my values where my body is so that I engage what is truly going on from my personal perspective. Sensory exploration is essential to getting the most out of life instead of glossing it prematurely with a dismissive categorization. Seen one, seen ‘em all. No, each individual being or event is unique in the world, and must be experienced to be appreciated. If we are bored with life, we are bored with ourselves for not taking the initiative to first give of ourselves to our surroundings in order to elicit their response.

At the dentist’s office in Bangor yesterday, I read in Time Magazine the news that great things were coming to the so-called third world in the form of first-world TV shows finally getting the global audience they so richly deserve. I put the magazine down and though about the benefits of pre-packaged experiences going by so fast that they amount to missed opportunities for doing something personally significant on the local scene. 

Mass media are the enemy of human consciousness because they are meant to overwhelm us, not engage us. We can’t ask questions or say how we feel. Try writing a letter to Time or Newsweek about their opinionated coverage of world events and you’ll get back a form letter much like the one you get from your Representative or Senator saying how much your letters mean to them. As if words and categorizations were reality itself. In truth, the corporate mass media are dumbing down the world, separating persons from their individual opportunities to have local experiences.

It’s not that, as the voice of corporate America, the media pre-package experience so much as that they pre-digest it for us, too, so there’s nothing else for us to do but sit and watch flat screens the evening through after working all day in a cubicle watching other flat screens. We should be out raising flowers and vegetables; watching birds, spiders, and insects; milking cows; hiking or swimming in the wilds with our kids; using our minds to make something of ourselves instead of letting the corporate media remake us to suit their agendas. For-profit corporate personhood is an assault on the Earth and all forms of life. Corporations are not alive, and know nothing about living beings. Their sole purpose is to make money for their owners, which they do at the expense of not only their owners themselves, but of all living beings.

Heroic conceptual categorizations laid on us by corporations doing our thinking for us, coupled to lazy sensory-pattern detection on our part, is leading us all down the primrose path to global catastrophe. The solution is to reclaim personhood for those who are still individuals among us, destroying the very idea of mass media in the process. The only media that work are intended for individuals, not the masses. We will never do better than face-to-face conversations, personal letters, or phone conversations. That way, we reserve categorization to ourselves as called forth by the aesthetic patterns we discover in daily experience. Once we forget how to do that, the end is not only near, it is behind us, leaving nobody to listen as the pretty music plays on.

Squash blossom soon to unfurl

(Copyright © 2010)

Do we have it in us? Can we back off from our project of building a future for ourselves, leaving room for those around us who are doing the same? Are we so dedicated to our agenda that we can’t appreciate that others are pursuing needs of their own? Who is to declare us right and them wrong? I mean, who aside from ourselves?

The trouble with sticking to corporate agendas with excessive zeal is that it sucks the air out of the room, leaving no oxygen for others to breathe. Is that our goal in life, to assert ourselves to the point that others suffocate in our presence? Are we capable of giving them leeway, some space to breathe? Just enough so they are comfortable in our presence, and vice versa. Are Israelis capable of backing off the Palestinians’ case, allowing them to live on their own without Israeli supervision to make sure they don’t step out of bounds?

The only way Israelis will ever live in peace is to permit Palestinians to do likewise without interference. Not just permit, insist that is their right. Instead of governing by domination, it would be better to step back, adopt a sensible two-state solution, and recognize that sovereignty for one group is workable only if all groups have equal claims to freedom and justice. As it is, Israelis regard Palestinians conceptually, as if they existed in a vacuum—but the vacuum is an emptiness in Israeli imagination.

Why is “the other” so difficult to picture in the mind? We know why the Palestinians are angry, the Israelis took their homeland out from under them by violent means. The Israelis are angry because Palestinians are blocking their agenda, coming between a people and their dream. In some ways, the Israeli dream is similar to the Palestinian dream—to live in peace. Israelis go further and insist on occupying the particular ground that they lost two millennia ago. If the Israelis were to back off, they might discover that both sides want the same thing in modern times. Which would seem to elevate the two-state solution to the level of a win-win compromise. True, neither would take possession of the entire state, but both could have access to it on peaceful terms. Is not living at peace with one’s neighbors preferable to dying an extremist’s death for an unjust cause that is wholly self-serving, and wrongly so?

Passion does not render miscategorizations accurate or fair. Insistence does not transform a claim into a right. Often the wise are those waiting patiently for their opponents to come to terms on their own without being forced. Such a strategy allows those on the opposite side to catch themselves overreaching so that, as in jujitsu, it is they who are shown to be off-balance. Extremists overreach themselves in denying the integrity of those they miscategorize or misjudge. Like hornets, they stir up commotions and alarms to snuff out the slightest hint their cause is any less righteous than they claim.

As for righteousness, no one has defended it better than the Congregation of the Holy Office has protected the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. After the fact, that body was advised to categorize Copernicus’s heliocentric theory as heresy, which led to Galileo being forced in 1633 to recant evidence provided by his telescopic investigations in support of the sun’s being the center of the universe as then understood, not the Earth as scripture would have it. Categorized as a heretic, Galileo was placed under permanent house arrest as a threat to the faith. Which is pretty much how Israel treats Palestinians today, categorizing them as threats to the state, so shutting them behind walls of concrete to teach them their place in the Israeli scheme of things.

Undue vehemence in support of particular categorizations of how things stand—or should stand—in the world is rampant around the globe. It comes as a shock to realize that bigotry on behalf of extreme beliefs is not a thing of the past. Bigotry divides people into two classes: those who are with us and those opposed; those who are right and those who are wrong. With the subtext that the right have truth and justice on their side, so are fully justified in censoring the free speech of the wrong by categorizing it as vicious and unfounded lies. That is, one effective way to guard against defamation is to defame your opponent before he is able to frame the debate. Which illustrates the power of our deliberate and conscious minds to use categorization in identifying and destroying at one blow those who oppose us.

Such tactics have become the American way. Consider these examples. 1) Political parties don’t lose elections anymore, they have them stolen by unscrupulous opponents. 2) Once corporations were categorized as persons, they were deemed to have freedom of speech under the First Amendment, which was stretched by activist judges to include the spending of money as a form of free speech—by lining those ducks in a row, the judicial branch singlehandedly undid our representative form of government as described in the U.S. Constitution. 3) Raise the issue of gun control within hearing of the National Rifle Association and you will trigger a tirade by CEO Wayne LaPierre in which absolute heresy is too weak a term for what you are are trying to say (“bullshit” would be his term); instantly you find yourself characterized as an evil terrorist out to prevent decent women and children from defending themselves with firearms, as (he will claim) specifically provided for in the Second Amendment.

Then there is AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., which claims to level the playing field for all discussions concerning Israel—but comes at such discussions from so aggressive an angle as to tilt the field smartly in its favor. For AIPAC, history is destiny, and modern Israel is seen as “fulfilling a political and historical imperative,” an imperative that makes no mention of Palestine or Palestinians, a place and a people wholly eliminated from the Jewish dream of founding a homeland in modern times. Which raises the issue, when dreams are turned to reality, what happens to those excluded from the dream? Does it matter? In this case, evidently, but not to the dreamers.

My point in this post is that in building a future for ourselves, we all attempt to reify or actualize dreams based on our prior experience, or sacred texts (as in the First and Second Amendments, or the Torah). First we visualize and categorize the kind of future we want for ourselves, then we develop the project of fulfilling our dreams as apt categorizations of reality. That, basically, is how consciousness works in the interest of our individual survival as far as we can push it.

But in realizing our dreams, it is better to include the world in its living diversity, not solely the narrow territory of our personal yearnings as we would project them onto a barren globe. If we don’t work with the lay of the land and the tribes that occupy it, we are apt to impose ourselves roughly in their midst, as Hitler did in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, North Africa, and the Balkans during World War II. And as the Jews did in 1948—and are still doing today—in what for a time was known as Palestine, and long before that was shown on maps of the time as Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Israel, Philistia, Judah, Persia, Palestina, Jerusalem, Galilee, among other fleeting categorizations.

Given the complexity of human movements and settlements around the Earth, staking a dream claim to any particular area requires a clarity of vision far beyond what the human mind can consciously attain. Columbus claimed the so-called New World as a province of the Old, in one gesture sweeping away the sovereign relationship Native Americans had with the land they lived on. The result is that such campaigns to claim and categorize a place invariably do violence to the historical record, and are conveniently based on the limited views of a small group of assertive people in one place at one time. Such as the Bush administration in deciding to bomb Afghanistan and invade Iraq. Knowing that, as we all must by now, we are well advised to be cautious in mapping ourselves onto Earth’s living surface. At the very least we must allow for those who are already there, since forcing ourselves upon them is bound to lead to resentment and cycles of revenge for the foreseeable future.

It makes more sense to back off from our dreams and develop a live and let-live philosophy that takes other perspectives with other histories into account. Those of us alive today are latecomers to our planet. We may think of ourselves as Adam and Eve in some nouveau Garden of Eden, but the fact is wherever we go, Earth is one giant midden heap consisting of the decomposing ruins of all that has come before us in this place. Excavating for a subway tunnel, we will come across a forgotten palace or perhaps the bones of a saber-toothed tiger. Future excavators will likely dig up the refrigerator we leave at curbside today.

If our minds are so preoccupied they can’t see that each of us is but one point of light in a coruscating multitude, then we are not fully conscious, and our categorizations are apt to be wildly inaccurate because our outreach and intelligence are seriously flawed. Acting as if our judgment were infallible, we head straight for the nearest cliff. Actions we accept on faith to be true and just will surely turn out to be false, unfair, and cruel. To others as well as ourselves and our heirs. Leaving us stunned with massive internal injuries. What we need is largeness of mind from the start, not as a sorry afterthought. The way to achieve that is to resist mapping our personal meanings onto others without consulting them first; just because we can paint them as we see them doesn’t mean a casual sketch is as good as a studied rendition. Our well-intentioned categorizations represent things only as we view them at the time, not as they are. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume we haven’t a clue about most things most of the time, and that we know not whereof we rave and rant.

It is better if we do not insist on pushing our agenda to its foregone conclusion. That is, instead of committing to a plan of action, if we back off after our first move and wait to see what will happen. Embarking on a looping engagement with those around us, we remain open to an easy give-and-take with the situation as it develops. We are wise to see what happens before acting again. Consciousness can come to a decision in a fraction of a second, but reacting at that rate, we base the future largely on assumptions we can’t rightly make at that speed. Even after a day or a month, we can’t know very much about conducting ourselves in the world. It takes decades to develop a sense of who we are and what we’re doing—I’d say fifty years at a minimum. Until then, we have only a weak sense of what we don’t know we don’t know. If you are impulsive and can’t wait, then plunge ahead; I promise you’ll learn something new—or will if you keep an open mind.

As it is, Republicans in Congress don’t seem very keen on new learning at this stage of their development. They’re right up there with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which hasn’t learned much in 2,000 years of rigid, top-down, authoritarian, paternalistic organization. Nor have AIPAC and the NRA much to show for all the stands they’ve taken because, like Alois Ratzinger (a.k.a. Benedict XVI), they claim infallibility in being so headstrong they can’t learn anything they don’t already know. These are not people you can trust to usher in the future of the world because they are so busily defending their corporate points of view.

“Catholic” means including or concerning all humankind (AHD). Which would seem to require broad sensitivity to grassroots affairs, not a heavy-handed, authoritarian approach radiating top-down from an infallible apex of one man. But once an idea germinates in human consciousness and becomes institutionalized, then it ceases to develop and ossifies as if, like commandments, it is written in stone. The same fate hardens interpretations of constitutional amendments, homelands depicted in ancient scripture, platforms of political parties, colonial attitudes toward native peoples. Like ants in amber, ideas get embedded into agendas and serve as mission statements chartered by law.

I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog that consciousness is a property of individual persons, not corporate bodies. When regarded as if groupthink were the equivalent of personal consciousness, then the weight of collective thought becomes extremely dangerous, as in the case of each of the examples I have provided in this post. When multitudes behave as if of one mind, then mob rule is inevitable. With disastrous results.

Better, we place our trust in individuals who plant flower gardens, go dancing, thrive in the presence of art, music, and poetry. And look to hikers, farmers, sailors, birdwatchers, and athletes of all sorts who move their bodies in joy, not just to win. These people are into the wonder of sensory relationships, not concepts, not what they already know. They are all on the forefront of their lives, doing their best to appreciate and respond to the sensory patterns that dance in their minds. They are likely to have a more accurate take on reality than those who force meanings upon it, who live in worlds where knowing is more important than simply being who they are. If orthodox knowledge is power, stand clear of it. Follow new patterns wherever they lead; patterns are sure signs of life. Concepts are yesterday; percepts are right now.

If you must categorize, take your time. When you don’t, you might find yourself playing the role of a particle collider that creates a vacuum to ensure unstoppable forces coming from opposite directions meet head-to-head.

Heliocentrism

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

Reflection 195: Inaction

April 5, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If the outcome of consciousness is, as I claim, to make things happen (to build a future, to act in relation to a current situation), what are the implications of those times when we are conscious in a given situation—but are unable to follow-through with appropriate action? Think of the young mother who dreams of a career but can’t take time away from childcare to act on her dream. The young man in solitary confinement, with active mind but inactive body. The child who watches TV Saturday mornings and shuttles between  refrigerator, bathroom, and his station on the couch. Think how it feels to wait for a stoplight to turn green, a ticket line to advance, an expected letter to arrive. 

Impatience is a sure sign that consciousness has gotten ahead of our ability to put plans into action. Biding time, waiting our turn, twiddling thumbs to release nervous energy—everyone knows what it’s like to be all wound up with no place to go. C’m-on, let’s move it! Get the lead out. The problem is that when our loop of engagement in a particular situation is delayed or interrupted for some reason beyond our control, we feel frustrated and out of sorts. Our rhythm is broken. If the delay turns into a long one, we become disengaged. Leading to a state of annoyance, despair, or depression.

It is surprising to consider how often we adopt surrogate outlets for activities which may be suppressed for even a short time. Smoking, for instance, chewing gum, grabbing a bite, drinking, or humming can be the result of a conscious urge to “do something” when we are inclined to act but cannot. The tension we feel is the result of an inability to act in an appropriate manner, so we divert that urge into an alternative activity both accessible and acceptable. We move our mouth parts instead of arms or legs. Watching TV, our options for making an appropriate response to what we’re seeing are often severely limited because we can’t enlist the screen in a conversation, argument, fight, or engagement of any sort. Roused to action by the program we’re watching, yet not able to make an appropriate response, we resort to surrogates such as tapping our fingers, picking a scab, scratching our necks—whatever diverts our urge to action to something we can actually do short of throwing a book at the screen or clicking it into oblivion.

Reduced to spectators, as we have been by the one-way, broadcast media since radio was invented, we find ourselves leading double lives having little to do with each other, following the program with our ears or eyes, perhaps, but tapping our fingers or toes to let off some steam. Such a waste of consciousness leads to hard feelings, because we know we’re being manipulated by someone else’s agenda. We get their message, but they can’t get ours. Domination of significant parts of our lives by such one-sided interactions with the media leads to frustration and irritation because we can’t “do anything” to let producers and sponsors know how we feel. Abuse by the media is one of the most common ailments of recent years, a global pandemic of enforced helplessness largely unrecognized for what it is.

The problem is that long-term inaction leads to an incapacity to act at all. If appropriate action is always sidetracked, that is what consciousness learns to do—sidetrack itself. Dissipate its capacities and energies. That is, to chew gum instead of speak truth to power. The freedom to act in light of personal consciousness is the fundamental freedom by which lives are led and civilizations built from the ground up. Freedom of will means nothing if it does not lead to action. Or worse than nothing—to waste and despair. Which is the state of modern America under the heel of corporate personhood with its industrial base shipped abroad, leaving formerly skilled workers stocking shelves at WalMart or smiling behind counters at MacDonalds for paychecks that Thoreau or Mohandas Gandhi couldn’t live on.

Now our schools emphasize concept formation in the earliest grades, neglecting personal sensory experience as if it were not the true foundation of learning to live in the world. Children are now supposed to be objective, not subjective, to live on familiar terms with descriptive and statistical generalizations as replacements for personal experience because schools can deal only with tidy (because largely empty) concepts instead of messy personal stories. Experience, the base of personal judgment and behavior, is earned through engagement with our senses and emotions, not solely our rational minds. It is subjective by nature because consciousness itself is subjective. Unique in each case, there is no such thing as statistical consciousness. Any school system that believes in students collectively rather than individually is teaching to an ideological fiction that cannot exist, a fiction spread across a bell curve so that a young person’s position relative to the mean is more important than who she is or what she can do. Which reduces human characteristics and abilities and histories and experiences to abstract generalizations instead of singling them out as the very qualities which make us who we are.

Schools, that is, train workers, customers, and consumers worthy to become a mass audience of zooids who will do what they are told by their supervisors. Try sitting still in a chair for hours at a time without talking or fidgeting and see if you are capable of original thought at the end of the day. The few outlets allowed include sports, music, theater, dance, and gymnastics—activities based on personal skill and discipline, which should be the center of the curriculum instead of out on the extracurricular fringe. What we learn in school is to stifle our basic urge to action, or to postpone it until classes are over. No wonder we’ve become a nation of media consumers, cubicle sitters, and counter attendants—those are precisely the sorts of non-activities we’re trained to do. As McLuhan said, the medium itself is the message. In schools, the medium is sitting quietly as if something were happening when it’s not. That’s what passes for good behavior and earns you a gold star for citizenship—doing as little as possible without bothering anyone else.

Am I tilting at windmills here, or have I become a professional cynic? Through my lifetime I’ve watched freedom of personal action decay into freedom of inaction to avoid upsetting the neighbors. That’s our modern version of the golden rule—instead of doing unto others we’ve learned the safest guide is to do as little as possible. That way we don’t make waves to get people upset. When we should be marching on the state or national capital, we sit quietly at home watching game shows on TV. Instead of embracing life itself, we’ve raised pretending to live to a high art.

As I see it, we’ve surrendered our personal sovereignty for the sake of comfort and convenience. That is, given up being unique persons to adopt the myth of being like everyone else. Persons act as consciousness leads them; members of the crowd look to their leaders. Think of the expectations we lay on Barack Obama to do our work for us when we could be part of the solution to the nation’s problems by putting our bodies on the line—as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King put their bodies and their lives on the line (both being assassinated for offending those they opposed). The theory we follow is we’ll live better and longer by not taking personal action—as if simply enduring under present conditions were more important than altering those conditions to make a better world for all.

We talk a lot about freedom, but the most basic freedom is the freedom to act, not the freedom to sulk or to hide. What if Martin Luther had never nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg to be seen by parishioners on All Saints Day in 1517? Where would we be but for his taking that stand against the sale of indulgences by which sinners could buy forgiveness for cash instead of confronting themselves? It is possible Christianity in the West would be synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, and the church hierarchy would center our lives on its origins in the priesthood of the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day. Inaction leaves behind it a heritage of what if? what if? what if?

These days we live in an era when chartered corporations have the status of living, breathing persons, and the rights granted to persons by the U.S. Constitution, including the right of free speech, and the spending of money as a variant thereof. That is, corporations can behave as if they were persons and we won’t make too fine a point of the self-evident fact that confounding corporations with persons is a sure sign of mental illness. Why persons? Why not corporations as servants of the people? Protectors of the Earth? Humanitarian institutions? The result of corporate personhood is the mockery of human personhood in that every one of us is diminished by that false categorization. If a distinction is not made between for-profit corporations and individual persons, something very important goes missing from our culture—the realization that persons are fundamentally conscious and can learn through experience while corporations are built structures without minds, and require persons to run them. Persons are persons, corporations are corporations; it makes no sense to extend the rights and abilities of one to the other as if there were no difference between them.

People can act in the world, corporations can’t. It is the people hiding behind corporations who have taken over our country and the rest of the world, acting by charter exclusively in their limited self-interest at the expense of us mortal beings who can’t afford the legal apparatus and deep pockets that corporations use to teach us our place, and keep us there. Tobacco companies, drug companies, agribusiness, the military industry, the power generators, big transportation—these are the corporations who presume to act on behalf of the world’s little people when they do not rise up and act boldly for themselves. Education renders us docile so we do not stand against this takeover of our most basic prerogative—to defend ourselves against hostile aggression.

With wealth concentrated in corporate accounts, and power safe in the hands of highly paid attorneys, corporations are free to manipulate public opinion by foisting whatever image they choose on a gullible public, so we come to accept them as what they pretend to be. Always the good guys, no matter what havoc they wreak in Nigeria, India, Chile, Mexico, or here at home. The playing field is not level. We engage by different rules. Freedom and equality are forgotten values. We can still vote, but it makes little difference because corporate money votes closer to where laws are written and decisions made. Our great ethical systems are stood on their heads—the golden rule, do no harm, equal opportunity, act from love, respect your opponent, democracy, fair play, we’re all equal under the sun. Corporate personhood renders every one of them obsolete because ethical systems are for people, not corporations. Corporations act as they wish as long as they pay their bills and keep the truth to themselves.

Yes, I fling paint with a broad brush in this portrait because I’ve learned that corporations can be counted on to sink to the lowest possible level. One financial crisis after another, one war after another, one takeover after another, one environmental catastrophe after another—we still end up with the same system that victimizes persons but treats corporations as if they were sacred. Even if they go bankrupt, even if they fail utterly, even if the people bail them out.

Action is indeed the upshot of consciousness, appropriate and effective action in the world we live in, even if we can’t make it out very clearly. When our options for action are severely restricted, our basic freedoms to think and act for ourselves become nonexistent. If that goes on long enough, we forget how to express our personal values in what we think and what we do. The game is over. The faceless “they” have won. The ones who pull the levers behind corporate curtains. The ones who make billions of dollars a year while the rest of us scrounge for coins beneath cushions.

All this is no dream. It comes to me through conscious reflection. Engaging the world with my mortal body and mind, this is what I discover. Here is the reality I live in. I have been schooled not to think for myself by sticking to the great thoughts of others, passed off in slogans and party lines. But I can’t help myself. I keep going back to the source of my own experience and digging around to see what I can learn from it. I see now that consciousness, critical judgment, and the ability to act free from interference in my current situation (as best I can make it out)—these are the greatest treasures I possess. If I do not exercise these gifts, I give up being myself. If we do not act for ourselves, that is where we end up—enslaved to others, devoting our actions to serving them.

Is this what we look like?

 

(Copyright © 2010)

What do I mean when I say we live in our heads, or on our own private planets?

I mean, for instance: Time is a convenient fiction, a designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured. Time is a construct of the human mind. Think of your watch as a miniature model of the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth each day. When we ask what time it is, we mean in reference to that model of the sun’s fictional motion through space. Time is a game we play in our heads, extending it imaginatively backward to days before Earth and its sun were formed, all the way to the alleged big bang, and forward imaginatively to days after the sun itself or any sort of timekeeper will exists.

We loosely think of the ageing process as a product of time, as if time were an agent that causes people to grow old. But in fact age is nothing other than the collective physical and mental changes that, instead of coming from time, produce the illusion of time itself as a supposed medium making change possible. If we could manage not changing from what we are right now, we would be eternal; that is, we’d have no need for time.

Space, too is such a construct of imagination. Objects do not exist in space, they exist in relationship one to another in the human mind as viewed from a particular perspective. Space is not the medium of such relationships but a designated contextual framework overlaid upon them for the purpose of calibrating and measuring them in ways meaningful to human awareness. We find meaning in the concepts of both time and space, even though in and of themselves they are figments of the mind. Changes exist; relationships exist; and both require the presence of observers such as ourselves. Without us, time and space would not exist. Even with us being present, we demonstrably exist (we can pinch ourselves to find out), but they exist only as ideas or concepts in our thoughts, speech, and writing.

Time and space are human categorizations—ways of reaching out to the world in order to find it meaningful in terms we provide and understand. They are inventions, not discoveries, artifacts of culture, not nature. They are useful mental tools, right up there with toothbrushes and toilet paper to help us shape the world to our liking.

Laws and human rights, too, are similar categorizations, ideas projected outward as if they were properties of the world itself. If human rights were features of the world, there would also be ant rights, wolf rights, bacteria rights, virus rights, tree rights, and so on. No, it is we who maintain that human rights exist as a convenient fiction, and devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reifying, objectifying, or substantiating that idea. The propertied classes have given us the idea of private property, and crafted a maze of legal opinions to “prove” it is not merely an illusion. Imagine a robin claiming the territory around its nest as its private property to do with as it pleases, referring to words written on paper in the form of a deed to support its claim. The words make it so one creature on Earth has exclusive “ownership rights” to its portion of the planet, and can justly do battle with any rival creature that thinks otherwise. 

The scale at which we project human ideas into the world is an indicator of the scale at which we imagine those ideas in our minds. We generally don’t think overly large or small, but just right—at the scale of typical human engagements such as gestures (like waving at an approaching friend, or throwing a Frisbee or a ball), activities (flying a kite, playing football, mining a hilltop for coal), everyday structures (houses, city blocks, skyscrapers, airfields), or grand undertakings (famous battles, voyages of exploration, pandemics, missions to the moon). The resolution at which we pick out the relevant details of our lives is scaled to the dimensions of the human body and how we use it. We find it difficult to think at bedbug scale, elephant or giraffe scale, ends of the Earth scale, voyages to Mars scale, or galaxy scale. That is, the world in our heads is largely scaled to norms set by everyday personal experience. Think of Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover from the mid-1970s depicting the view west from 9th Street in Manhattan to “Hudson River,” “Jersey,” and, much diminished, the nameless far beyond.

Our personal planets are populated by myriad creatures to which we give names, forms, characteristics, and entire resumes, even though we know they aren’t really real—just pretend real—as if there were degrees of reality. But we shift from one degree to another as easily as any child captivated by Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. Films, plays, and literature depend on our not making distinctions between degrees of engagement or believability. Every advertisement presents a hokey view of reality, as does every cartoon, public relations campaign, vote in Congress, or wedding ceremony. Without being overly fussy, we choose to believe what fits into our general scheme of things at the time. Consciousness is peopled by Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, Paul Bunyan, Moses, Captain Nemo, Raskolnikoff, Aida, the Cowardly Lion, and Sugarplum Fairy. Yes, we tell our children, there is a Santa Clause, each supernatural (better, subnatural) being having a secure place near our hearts as well as in the depths of our minds.

We rush to demonize or lionize others in defending how we choose to characterize them, pointing our fingers with glee at those who fall short of or exceed our routine expectations for human behavior within what we consider a normal range. It doesn’t take more than one true confession to shift a saint to the opposite extreme of our personal Pantheon: witness Tiger Woods, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and Donald Rumsfeld. Men seem to have a hard time measuring up to their pretensions of virtue. In each of their minds they remain that innocent little kid who is not capable of doing wrong. From governor or attorney general to lowly two-timer in one day! Dontcha just love it! Everybody does. Where, then, does reality lie? Which persona is real? How are we to categorize the male animal?

Even members of the Supreme Court, who you’d hope would know where they reside, do not live in the real world. On one hand Justice John Paul Stevens takes his lived experience into account in interpreting the Constitution, as the framers must have taken their own experience in their day. On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia claims to have direct access to the intent of the framers by consulting the words they committed to paper in composing the original document, even though Earth has orbited the sun 223 times since those heady days, slaves are no longer regarded as property, women can vote, and usage of the English language has strayed far beyond the conventional bounds that prevailed in the seafaring-agrarian days of the thirteen colonies.

There is something in the human mind that loves to be fooled and to fool others. When I visit my son Michael’s grave on his birthday in February each year, I find bright blues and reds of artificial flowers with plastic greens poking from waterless jars buried in snow before other graves. Such displays always stop me in my tracks to consider the intent of placing such bouquets. Setting out real flowers at Memorial Day I can understand, but false ones out of season gives me pause. I see a show of remembrance but not remembrance itself, as if good intentions sufficed, or giving impressions was the issue. Fortunately, the dead are blind and cannot watch the little plays staged on their behalf. I am being judgmental here, a quality of mind that keeps me from adorning my son’s grave with plastic flowers from China. Usually, his grave marker is buried under snow, but I know exactly where it is in relation to the great oak overhead, and where his ashes are placed. I visit the grave to converse with the son who still lives in me, and is with me wherever I go. Where is reality, cremated and buried beneath a stone, or in my head?

We love to be fooled by slight of hand because it creates a slight of mind that is thrilling in being inexplicable. Whatever our age, magic shows make us wonder about the nature of things. How is it possible to saw a lady in half without doing violence to her body? She doesn’t seem to mind, and even wiggles her toes during the cut. Suspension of skepticism and disbelief makes children of us all. How do cars move? How do planes fly? How do pumpkins get so big? How will St. Peter react to what he reads under our name in the great ledger when we show up at the gate? Baudelaire’s characterization of genius as childhood recalled at will applies to the part of our conscious minds that defies the ageing process by staunchly staying the same throughout our lives. Or at least seems to stay the same, even if periodically updated. The child within may well be a fictional persona, but the old feeling of innocent wonder and curiosity is available to us at all times. And that feeling recalled in the face of mysterious events gives us pleasure, so once we find our way back to it, we go there as often as we can. Perhaps it is on that level that we are so taken with artificial flowers today. And read Marvel Comics as kids.

Sporting competitions bring out a similar childhood sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad. In the bleachers, we become our childhood selves once again, living solely for the moment, being fully engaged, waving our arms, jumping up, yelling with mindless abandon. When we are in that place, nothing else matters but the game being played as we see it from our childhood perspective. It is no wonder that the sports section is a fixture of the local newspaper. It invites us to release our inner child, to engage now as we did in our days of non-stop excitement and wonder. The substrate of the so-called real world is Baudelaire’s sense of genius being rooted in childhood, not to be simply recalled but relived in the moment. Meaning is there when that happens, old days mapping onto new, rejuvenating us by early concepts reaching out to sensory patterns in the now, recognizing them, making them seem familiar, and so true.

Lying in bed last night, I realized that in language, art, and music alike, patterns of relationship are everything. The brain is a seeker of relationships between patterns, and when it finds such relationships through any combination of the senses—whether simultaneous or sequential, visual or auditory, linguistic or experiential—the mind bestows meaning on those patterns in the sense of understanding what is taking place in terms it has encountered before. To understand is to wrap the now in the then, the here in the there, the new in the old, the concrete in the abstract and conceptual. All made possible by signals in the brain, wherever located, that share a recognizable rhythm. Where such neural rhythms can be appreciated in relation one to another, that is where we live because we are made to make just such connections. Learning to read is an exercise in pattern recognition and relationship. Ditto for listening to music and looking at art. Recognizing a face as familiar underwrites that face with a history, which makes it meaningful in a personal way. Discovering a familiar feel to a situation conveys meaning from memory onto that situation, even though we have never been in precisely that one before. With the result we know who we are in that place, and assume the persona of our old selves again.

Where and what is reality? It is not waiting for us to discover behind closed doors, but comes with us when we walk into a situation buzzing with patterns of stimulation we can put a familiar feel to and a name. Reality is within us as a sense of the trusted and familiar, qualities with which we reach into the unknown in hopes we will find something meaningful because recognizable. If we find no such patterns, we are not in our element, and so feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.

Cultures are known by the distinctive patterns of their ways of dressing, eating, speaking, praying, greeting, and going about the business of everyday life. They are flagrant in making themselves know to all comers. Dark pinstripe suits generally do not consort with bright colored dashikis. There is no doubt whether our familiar patterns of recognition are in keeping with those here on display or not. We know intuitively and immediately if we belong here or not—if this is our sort of place, where we know who we are because our inner and outer patterns of relationship match up without discord.

Reality is within us as a replica of patterns we acquired in childhood by being immersed in a world that danced to a certain rhythm from our earliest days. Our caregivers set the beat and the tone, joined by our siblings and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Those primal patterns are stamped into connections and disconnections between neurons in our brains established in our formative days, months, and years, giving familiar patterns an edge over unfamiliar ones, recognizable sensory patterns an advantage over the novel or strange. Reaching into the world, we are ever sensitive to those same patterns that calibrated our young minds. As pattern recognizers go, it takes one to know one.

So, as I say, the real world is within, waiting to be released into an external world that would be a formless cacophony without our being there to put it in order. Reality is our doing. We are the ones responsible for recognizing its patterns on sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Which is why, to study the world, we must first study ourselves to discover in what sort of world we truly belong. On that basis, we can then make deliberate efforts to adapt to the world we find ourselves in—to accommodate to its rhythms, dances, and ways of being—so that we belong there as well as to the world we bring with us in our heads.

NASA Reality--Eagle flying where there is no air