Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Known locally as “fire rings,” the barbecue grills in Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park are falling into the tide. At least five of them are. Documenting sea-level rise in Frenchman Bay, I’ve been photographing those rings since 2006.

Along with doing estuary research, writing a book on consciousness, taking pictures, making presentations, keeping up with my blog, learning HTML so I could put up a Website, helping “Occupy” my part of Maine, going to Quaker events, and keeping up with both my partner and the news—along with those activities I’ve been busy monitoring sea-level rise in local waters. Such are the multiple loops of engagement I maintain in keeping with my conscious life so I feel like myself.

Since sea level is hard to determine, I monitor worst-case scenarios during storms near full- or new-moon high tides, including the aftermath of such tides along sandy shores. I photograph bank erosion, undercut turf, uprooted trees, extreme waves, and concrete pads bearing fire rings toward the shore. I’ve been keeping track of seven rings on their pads, now down to three as the National Park Service rescues them at the last minute, leaving the pads to break up on the beach.

Here are a few photos of rings number 2 and 4 taken over the years, and three of a shoreline spruce tree. That’s what sea-level rise looks like in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Ring-2_12-20-2006_blog ring-2_4-17-2007_blogring-2_12-25-2007 ring-2_04-12-2012_blogtree_12-20-2006_blog tree_5-12-2008_blog tree_2-26-2010_blog ring-4_4-17-2007_blogring-4_11-25-2007_blog ring-4_04-12-2012_blog In places, the bank has receded two-and-a-half feet in the few years I’ve been monitoring shoreline erosion—some five-and-a-half years. Storm winds, waves, ice, high tides, and now sea-level rise are taking their toll. Why else am I conscious but to keep watch of such events. I thought you might want to know.

Ever vigilant, I remain y’r friend, –Steve

Advertisements

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Some time ago (December 21, 2009), Fen Montaigne wrote a piece in the New Yorker about Bill Fraser’s research on the Antarctic Peninsula. He quoted Fraser saying:

It was completely remote and absolutely wild. The rawness and beauty of this place just cannot be described. It was a place where you could still feel inconsequential. You were part of a working system that paid you no mind.

I perked up when I read that because it struck me that Fraser was really present to the place where his body was, unlike so many of us walking around with ear buds or cellphones directing our attention far away from where our bodies are.

Montaigne goes on to quote Fraser further:

It always seemed intuitive to me that the only way to really understand something is to live in it, to spend a tremendous amount of time in the field, collecting the same data year after year. . . . You develop a sense for what the rhythms should be, the flow of things. And that’s what has allowed me to pick up things that don’t make sense, the anomalies. The anomalous years really cue you in as to how this system is operating.

Those are the kinds of things that happen when you truly engage a place with all of your senses. You open yourself to that place, and slowly, slowly, it reveals its secrets to you. You begin to understand how it works as one event flows into another and another. Total immersion, that’s what it takes to understand a watershed, landscape, island, habitat, or place of special interest to any singular human being.

Being there. I don’t think it is—or even can be—taught in schools. You have to figure out how to do it on your own because you have to do it to become part of the scene and be who you are in that place. That is exactly how I learned everything I know about Taunton Bay, Maine, by being there with eyes and ears open and mouth shut. Not looking for anything in particular but keeping watch on everything that’s going on. In sun, snow, or rain; daytime or nighttime; high tide or low; drought or deluge; at all seasons under any and all conditions.

Total engagement, that’s what it takes to know a place. To answer your own questions because you make yourself into the only person qualified to do so. Passion is the driving force that leads you to keep track of whatever comes. By opening yourself to experience and not just data of one sort or another, you trust your whole being—the most finely tuned instrument you have—to show you the way. If you can truly give of yourself, then your surroundings will eventually provide the understanding you need to be yourself in that place.

That is, you learn biology, say, by being a biologist—someone not only interested in how living systems work, but committed to finding out through employing your muscles and bodily senses toward that end. By engaging whatever systems both fascinate and challenge you where you are.

Yes, you can learn biology from books, videos, classes, and experienced biologists. But to know any subject inside-out, you have to engage it with your own actions and senses so it becomes your personal understanding and not something someone else relayed to you from their experience, not yours. Each of us being unique as she is, we will all find something in a discipline that attracts our attention in particular. It is that special interest that leads us to discoveries others will never make because they lead other lives driven by interests of their own. To contribute to world understanding, we must be fully ourselves by grasping the engagements we are compelled to experience for ourselves, and then share what we find.

Henry Thoreau, for instance, wrote in his journal on November 21, 1850:

I saw Fair Haven Pond with its island, and meadow between the island and the shore, and a strip of perfectly still and smooth water in the lee of the island, and two hawks, fish hawks perhaps, sailing over it. I did not see how it could be improved.

He continues:

Yet I do not see what these things can be. I begin to see such an object when I cease to understand it and see that I did not realize or appreciate it before, but I get no further than this. How adapted these forms and colors to my eye! A meadow and an island! What are these things?

That’s what it’s like to be truly engaged with your surroundings. Boundaries get fuzzy and you can’t tell what’s your contribution and what belongs to your sensory environment. The paragraph ends:

Yet the hawks and the ducks keep so aloof! and Nature is so reserved! I am made to love the pond and the meadow, as the wind is made to ripple the water.

There he stands, reaching out with love for the scene before him, the scene reaching in to him. Not in understanding, but with an undeniably attractive force that hooks him and holds him fast. That’s what being there is all about—engaging your surroundings so you feel their force inside you, and at the same time know they are separate from your own being.

In this example, Thoreau learned more about himself than about the hawks and the ducks. But in sensing that he and they were coequals, he came to see them in a new light, and himself in a new light. That is true learning because the change is in the seer who accommodates to his personal experience, his grasp of his world now larger than before.

May Sarton’s poem “Now I Become Myself” presents somewhat the same message.

Now I become myself. It’s taken

Time, many years and places;

I have been dissolved and shaken,

Worn other people’s faces,

Run madly, as if Time were there,

Terribly old, crying a warning,

“Hurry, you will be dead before—”

She considers Time’s possible warnings, then continues:

Now to stand still, to be here,

Feel my own weight and density!

/ . . . /

Now there is time and Time is young.

O, in this single hour I live

All of myself and do not move.

I, the pursued, who madly ran,

Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun.

It’s that ability to stand still amid the onrush of worldly events that is a sure sign of being there with the ability to take it all in from the center of your being. That is precisely when questions arise about the true nature of things, and answer are felt as soon as the issue is raised. Those answers turn into a series of further questions, and true learning begins.

Being there gives us purchase on the immensity of our ignorance, which is how each of us makes his or her way into the future.

I will leave it at that for now. Y’rs truly, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Earth-from-space_detail

Once upon a time there was a little dot in space. It appears on an image NASA made of our very own Earth using a camera on board Voyager 1 in 1990 when it was four billion miles away from its planet of origin. That dot is us. All of us. Our entire planet as seen from far space.

Humbling to say the least. We are a universal nonentity. A nebbish, no-account planet. One dust speck just floating in emptiness, reducing all human civilization to one pixel among gazillions. Nothing we have ever done makes a difference to any eye that might catch a glimpse of us as a mote drifting across its gaze. We love to talk ourselves up and write books about our deeds, but in the great catalog of the universe, we aren’t even a dot at the end of one sentence. What’s to know, to admire, to engage with?

Yet that dot is all we know. We call it home. The habitat of seven billion human minds, and countless other kinds of animal minds. Seen from space, our great wars, revolutions, and discoveries amount to nothing—a kind of Brownian motion for Dummies, human frictions generating a modicum of heat but certainly no light, all to no purpose whatsoever.

NASA-Earth_96_maskAh, that’s much better. At least it’s recognizable. Oceans—both Atlantic and Pacific. Clouds. An ice cap. There’s Florida. Mexico. Thank you, NASA, for getting a bit closer. But the image still doesn’t show any signs of us, we the people of earth. Hey, we’re down here on the surface, doing our thing. How do you turn up the resolution of these things so we stand out the way we see ourselves as A-Number One? I guess you just gotta be here to see what’s going on.

Panorama-E-coast_1-29-2012_nasa_96Better. Much better. NASA, you’re starting to get it. All those lights—that’s us, brightening the world so we can do our thing at night as well as during the day. We’re the night eliminators going 24/365. See, there’s Philly, New York, Long Island, Cape Cod, Boston. Lake what . . . Ontario? Ottawa, Montreal. Not much of Maine. Maine goes to bed when it gets dark. Maybe that blue is the northern lights. Well, without us, you’d still see that, and the stars of course, but nothing else. No cities, no roads, no boats out on the water.

WestStreet_BarHarbor_8-2011Finally! I think you got it. Yes, definitely. That’s what being in Bar Harbor is like in August. Bright sun, crowded sidewalks, construction, cruise ships, people heading every which way. You gotta be there to take in the hustle, the ice cream cones, the lobster dinners, the beer, the music, the spirit. America on vacation. That’s the scene. Doing it. Being there in Bar Harbor, Maine. Where nothing is important but everything you do is the most important thing in the world. Where to go, what to do, what to take, what to see, what to wear.

Being there is living your life wholly as yourself, open to anything and everything, taking it all in, growing larger, focusing your senses, seeing and doing things you never did before because you didn’t know they were possible. Until you realized they were at that time in that place.

Being there is the opposite of going to school. Of sitting silently in your seat in a row of seats in a room full of seats, with a teacher up front, and a white board, and a digital projector showing you the world—but not really the world because it leaves the exciting parts out. That’s being there in body but not in spirit. Going through the motions to train you to be a dutiful worker and do what you’re told to do. Or sitting in a cubicle playing computer games when no one is looking, feeling guilty and glad to be getting away with it just the same.

No, being there requires full engagement with your sharpest attention, really taking part in what’s going on around you. Being there comes down to engaging your surroundings where you are, when you are there; being fully yourself in that place.

That’s my thought for today. I’m engaged in writing this blog. What are you up to? Y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

“Being there” means to me being in a place with all my senses alert so I am open to that place telling me about itself. As astronaut Edgar Mitchell reported being on Apollo 14 returning from the moon in 1971, looking out the spacecraft window as it spun every two minutes to even-out solar heating so the craft wouldn’t get too warm, for a time seeing on each rotation first the earth, then the moon, then the sun, then the earth again, and so on, each body in turn rising and setting, rising and setting, rising and setting.

Imagine being in a place where that sequence would be possible at that rate under those unusual conditions. Imagine the experience of witnessing that cycle over and over again. Of having the privilege to have such an experience, of being present to such a cosmic progression, with the stars ten times brighter than usual for a background, of being one of the few people in all of human history to be in such a position in the universe to see such a sight.

For Mitchell, it was a life-changing event. As reported in Ascent Magazine, and retold in the Christian Science Monitor (Jan. 23, 2012), in Mitchell’s words:

It was overwhelmingly magnificent…. I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It wasn’t just intellectual knowledge—it was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy—a transformational experience (Richard Schiffman, ‘Do we need spaceflight for the perspective?’).

That’s what “being there” means to me, being alive and fully present to a place at a singular opportunity. Looking back over my life, I see such events strung across my lifetime like pearls on a necklace, each shining with its own radiance. The latest such event happened last week when I made my rounds through the watershed of Taunton Bay in Hancock County, Maine, touring among sand pits, blueberry barrens, streams flowing through thick woods, ponds, wetlands, sparse human settlements where my ancestors grew old, now seeing outcrops of Sullivan granite, now Ellsworth schist, now glacial erratic boulders imported by ice sheets from the north.

I was looking to photograph details of the watershed to illustrate a PowerPoint I was putting together for presentation at a conference this coming Saturday. But I got more than mere digital images. I received confirmation that I was exactly where I belong in the universe, celebrating the land, water, and sky around me, the very landscape that makes my life possible, bearable, and at times such as that, wonderful. You’d have to have been there seeing what I saw to get a sense of what I experienced on the inside—a powerful sense of belonging where I was at each stage of my journey.

OutletofDonnellPond_96 MillBrook_96BlueberryBarren_96Card-Mill-Stream_96SandPit_EFranklin_96 

No, I was not in the exalted place astronaut Mitchell achieved in 1971. My experience was notably terrestrial—on the surface of the habitat where I live. But I have a sense that habitat spoke to me as powerfully as those heavenly bodies spoke to him. Out of all places in the universe, I was where I belonged at that moment in time. I knew exactly who I was and what I was doing. I couldn’t imagine engaging my surroundings anywhere else. I didn’t need to invent any other persona to meet the expectations I or society might cast upon me. The whole time, I was fully conscious and engaged as myself. For me, days don’t get any better than that.

No, I won’t go on to found any Institute of Noetic Sciences as Mitchell did in honor of his personal experience. But I will show my slides this Saturday, and that will be sufficient for me to make myself happen as I choose. To engage my subject as I choose. To be fully myself in the presence of others I trust will feel empowered to be fully themselves. How to get to that place, and actually be there—that is the topic of CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK.

I plan to write more on the topic of “being there” in future blogs. Until then, I remain, y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Everyone is fascinated, captivated, enthralled by the short, happy life of the Titanic, and the story of its maiden (and only) voyage that ended 100 years ago yesterday. Yes, this is the story of great myths, literature, drama. And underneath such symbolic treatments, it is the story of how we are called to consciousness by emergency situations.

Think of Russian sailors trapped in the hull of a sunken nuclear submarine. Think of the Apollo 13 astronauts. Think of coal miners sealed deep underground. Think of bungee jumpers, gamblers, tightrope walkers, and entrepreneurs who profit by taking personal risks. Even pornography horrifies-fascinates us in going beyond anything we can conceive of in our own erotic relationships.

By imaginatively putting ourselves in situations others have faced, we stand to learn how to conduct ourselves when our turn comes to meet the challenge of severe adversity. This is not an effort in logical planning, it is wholly intuitive in expanding our awareness of fight-or-flight opportunities. The wise take note, the careless gape and pass on. In any event, none of us can anticipate what will bring us down in the end.

From my point of view, the sinking of the Titanic illustrates the end of the supposed world order as we know it. We feel compelled to search for some survival advantage to take from the experience of others engaged in such an event. Why else are we given a capacity for consciousness other than to learn such lessons, so to apply them to our own advantage when the time comes?

What is it that arouses us in times of disaster but the disparity or discord between what we desire and what actually happens? It is in that gap that we come to consciousness to grapple with the difference between the best of times and the worst of times. We engage, that is, for the deepest of values—to survive under life-changing situations.

And in everyday life, we are aroused precisely by those extreme situations that are worse than bad or else better than good—putting us beyond the limits of our personal experience that we may transcend our own limitations and thrive under circumstances we have never known or imagined up till now.

In personal consciousness, each of us has a means for transcending our historical life experience in order to survive under the altered circumstances the future will inevitably present to us. We can either bull our way through on the basis of what we already know or believe—or we can incorporate new learning into our repertory of understanding, and so grow larger and more experienced with a greater probability of surviving in the face of unknown challenges ahead.

The sinking of the Titanic is, for each of us, a warning of what may lie before us. Intuition draws us to that incident so that we may learn from it how to cope with similar disasters in which we may be personally involved. Its fascination is not with the fate of those others, whether on the bridge or in first-class or steerage, but with our own personal fate should we ever collide with an iceberg in the North Atlantic—or the personal equivalent of such a disaster when we foolishly place our trust in the unsinkability of our first-person, singular and most precious self.

An alternative to developing such an emergency strategy is to attempt to forestall the future by building fortifications around our respective castles or installing backyard bomb shelters, accruing an arsenal of weapons, or hoarding vast stores of wealth instead of building life-enhancing and life-saving skills we can take with us wherever we go. Aleric took Rome because someone left the back gate open, rendering the city’s massive walls a monument to pride and forlorn hope.

In CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK, I offer the image of a helmsman steering his way through fog “by the deviance of his compass needle from his charted course. His mindfulness of that error allows him to turn the wheel to port or starboard to counter the error at each moment as he goes. In that simple image I discover the rise of William James’ stream of consciousness, what others see as successive instants of working memory, and I see as my ongoing loop of conscious engagement” (p. 129).

Consciousness is given us as such a helmsman to guide us in response to the errors we make in judging where we are in relation to where we want to be. The fate of the Titanic illustrates the folly of deliberately cruising through a field of icebergs in the North Atlantic, relying wholly on faith in our carrier’s claim to being “unsinkable,” wagering good money on that claim. It is when we surrender sound conscious judgment to others that we become unduly vulnerable ourselves. That is the Titanic’s message to generations ever after that fatal event.

Every day is Celebrate Personal Consciousness Day that we may make good use of gifts we otherwise may take for granted—with dire results.

Check out the Website I made for my book, myndloop.com, buy the book at Lulu.com, read it, and do what you can to live a long life in full awareness of your inner workings and the fixes you can get into.

Thanks for stopping by. Y’rs truly, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

NASA’s picture of the day illustrates baby stars creating chaos in the Orion nebula. Well, you know what trouble babies can get up to. In this false-color image from NASA, here’s what it looks like:

NASA_Orion-Neb_4-10-2012

The universe whirling around in a tizzy. Kind of beautiful from a distance. I start with this image as an illustration of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, because that’s how I feel about the film—both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. If you visit Orion or the film, you’d better hold onto your hat.

In summary, the husband dutifully cares for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father while the wife wants to take their daughter out of the country to get a good education. As many couples are, both are wrapped up in deeply meaningful yet incompatible campaigns of engagement. From that tense beginning, the plot quickly grows much more complicated when a hired daycare-giver and her husband get involved, and we see the plot unravel through the eyes of two children. The point the filmmaker makes being that the parental commitments and engagements  are the context in which the two girls learn how to be human, so of course it is only natural that they pick up the ways of their parents.

The film plays against the background of modern, urban life in Iran, suggesting that the whole country is torn in its engagements, everyone living a solitary life without hope of relief. Chaos in Iran much as it lies at the heart of NASA’s false-color Orion nebula.

It was the best of films, it was the worst of films because so powerfully engaging. When I woke up the day after, I ran through the plots of Shakespearian plays, of Virgil leading Dante through the windings of hell, of Don Quixote’s endless troubles, of the Iliad and Odyssey, of extant Greek drama. Deep affection decaying to ruin and misery—we love it and always have as a reminder to stick to the straight and narrow. It’s like having a Greek chorus wending in the background, reminding us that they’d warned us from the beginning not to get involved.

But, invariably, we do get involved or engaged. We have no choice but to live our lives in the now, not to hearken to some mythical order of the past as it has become fixed in our minds as the way it’s supposed to be. But foolishly we commit much of our time to rebuilding the past as we imagine it was rather than facing into the novelty each day presents as a sure sign the future will be something other than we have ever known.

In the film, the arbiter is a hectored magistrate who is to decide the fate of the conflicted father, mother, and daughter. Is the girl to go with the mother in hopes of getting a better (non-Iranian) education, or is she to stick with her father in performing the ritual duties imposed by the past in caring for a member of an earlier generation? Is the Orion nebula to be locked into an earlier stage of its evolution, or is it to unfold as a nursery for young stars—with all the chaos that will stir up in its corner of the universe?

Put differently, will Israel strive to live up to a myth codified in the seventh century B.C. during the Babylonian captivity, or will it acknowledge that modern times have moved beyond the point where that might even be possible because the so-called holy land is no longer what it once was? Will the peoples of Palestine graciously step aside and make room for the Jews as a fact of modern life?

The problem being—in Orion and elsewhere—that everything is shifting, changing, moving on at every moment, and we have the choice of mooring our lives to a fixed myth of how they should be lived—or of getting with the universal program of change and evolution built on the ruins of the past, while opening onto an ever-new vision of reality each day of our lives.

Are we educable or stuck clinging to a version of the past that never was? Can we accommodate to a future we have never imagined, or must the truth conform to what we already believe?

To grow into the future, a birch tree must tear its own bark to let its cambium layer expand in meeting the needs of a hungrier tree. Baby stars in the Orion nebula condense from and feed on the universal clouds of dust that preceded them. To live is to die to the selves we were yesterday. If we live in the past, we become dead to the present as husks of who we once were.

Engagement requires a commitment to the events of today, not a recommitment to how it was yesterday. To be alive is to move with our times, not against them. If we opt not to keep up, we fall behind, leaving the universe to go on without us.

Imagine discovering peoples on Mars living according to scriptures set down some 1,400 or 1,900 or 2,600 years ago, commemorating ancient events as if they were current. What would we make of them? In each case, creatures of the lost lagoon, in denial that anything of note has happened since their cultural clocks stopped so long ago.

Meanwhile, the Orion nebula just keeps doing its thing, changing into a new form as dictated by the forces acting upon it today.

If we cannot fit ourselves to the flow of days and events bearing upon us, can we claim to be alive to today? Consuming Earth’s limited resources to live in the past is a luxury our planet and its peoples cannot afford. Yes, we are reluctant to let go of past ways, but at the same time are aware of being drawn forward in spite of our yearnings and attachments. That’s life—for Orion, for birch trees, for characters in films, and for us. But if we elect to hold on when we need to let go—to separate from the selves we once were—we are in deep trouble having consequences for everyone around us.

Loops of engagement fit us to the now, not the then. If we use them to cling to the past, we are moving backwards, not forward. When entire cultures dedicate themselves to keeping the past alive, they embed themselves in amber as fossils in a cardboard box on the shelves of a museum storeroom.

Do you smell something musty in the air?

Well, that’s where I am today. The question is, where are you?  Y’rs truly, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

We are so much more than we think we are. I can do only one job at a time, but looking within myself, I find all my jobs and connections and urges are there all the time. My life is a matter of putting myself into one situation after another, which draws a particular aspect of myself out into the open so I can get something done. I cook, I write, I read, I walk, I talk, I go, I watch, I think—and in 24 hours I get a lot done, one job at a time.

The real me is the steersman who plots my course from one possibility for action to the next. I can’t do it all all the time, so I must choose what to do now, then what to do next, and then next after that. Eventually, if I live long enough, I get a lot done one job at a time.

Outside of me, people are calling me to do this and do that. Some calls are hard to resist, so I work with one or two of them now and again. But I am in charge of the order of my own life, and if I work too hard for those calling to me, I can’t get much done for myself, which is the point of my life—to be myself as much as I can. If I let others steer my life, I am their creature, not my own. Am I put on Earth to do their work and not mine?

No, looking for guidance from within, my life stays manageable and adds up to what I am put here to do. My sensory impressions are my sensory impressions. My world is how I see things, hear things, touch things, smell things, taste things. That’s where I live, in that inner world. Looking to others for guidance puts me in their world, where my life’s energy is frittered away and adds up to very little.

Along with my sensory impressions I find I interpret each impression my own way as based on my life’s experience. Things become functional and meaningful to me because I seize them in light of the life I have actually lived up till now. If I had lived a different life, I would see-hear-touch things differently than I do. But since I have lived only my one little life, that simplifies my experience because I have steered my way from moment to moment and not left that job to anyone else.

As a result, I understand my sensory impressions and conceptual interpretations for myself, so they fit the pattern I have made for myself from the many details of the life I have actually lived—not as others tell me how my life should be understood from their points of view. In being my own man, I do the heavy lifting of making sense of my world through my own mental efforts. That way I know at all times who I am—myself. Who else would I be?

Beyond the sensory impressions, conceptual interpretations, and overall understandings that make up my life, there lies the magical world of my very own creative imagination that has me act as only I can act while staying true to the life I have lived up till now. That is the dimension of my personal consciousness that has me steer through events as only I can steer because I am who I am.

No one else on Earth shares the same imaginative approach to life that I have earned for myself by living the life I have lived up to now. That is precisely what I have to offer to you, the creative imagination by which I direct my own actions. And the same is true for you: what you offer me is the unique creative imagination by which you steer your own course as you do.

So here we are, you on your course, I on mine, briefly being within hailing range so we can call out to one another and sense some kind of response. Ships passing in the night on our respective journeys, but each in the other’s company for a brief time. Halloo, where are you bound? How goes it with you?

Even if we don’t connect, just knowing you’re there makes me feel better than if I thought I was out here alone just doing my thing. Together, we’re making this world what it is. Maybe, through exercise of our creative imaginations, we can make it better than it is at the moment. Your heading and my heading may add up to something, not just for you and me, but for everyone.

Sorry about how intricate and confusing my blog must have seemed yesterday. There’s so much traffic in my creative imagination, I sometimes lose myself and can’t keep it all straight. I try, but don’t always succeed. Bear with me. I’ll get there, though not by steering a straight course.

Thanks for checking in. As ever, y’rs truly –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

In CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK, I divide loops of engagement into two segments: on one hand, dimensions of consciousness devoted to perception (including arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impression, discernment, interpretation, understanding, feeling, and values); and on the other,  dimensions of consciousness preparatory for action (including memory, judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, and planning).

Perceptual dimensions of consciousness lead to consolidation of new memories. Dimensions leading to action combine memory with current values and feelings in planning and executing behaviors appropriate to the current situation as construed by the mind.

That construal (interpretation or construction) of the current situation provides the setting for our looping engagements. That’s where understanding enters the loop as the upshot of the mutual engagement of perception and interpretation. How we understand a given situation determines how we physically behave on any given occasion. Perception, interpretation, and understanding determine the climate in which events occur; action is the specific weather at a given place and time within a specific situation.

Climates of consciousness, in being largely cultural, include the great disciplines of human thought and awareness: economics, politics, theology, healthcare, science, education, military affairs, agriculture, art, fashion, literature, geography, athletics, language, and other components of the cultures we build around ourselves, and which in turn shape our identities.

These cultural influences are aspects of our personal understandings of ourselves as members of particular groups, families, races, and nations as they shape our fields of personal concern. And within those fields of concern, spur the loops of engagement by which we balance our personal awareness against the options for action we see for dealing with our concerns at the moment.

Within our respective cultures, each of us is a distinct individual subject to a unique variety of pressures, interests, and concerns. How we respond in making ourselves happen in the world is influenced by our understanding of both ourselves and our worlds in concert with our feelings and values.

What is truly remarkable about us as a species is the diversity of approaches we take in dealing with our concerns as we construe them according to our experience, understanding, faith, and belief. Some of us follow Catholic ways, some  Protestant or Jewish ways, others Buddhist or Islamic ways. Some of us are democrats, republicans, socialists, communists, fascists, or none of the above. Some make music while others make art, quilts, or batches of beer. Some have families, some have pets, some live in mansions, others in hovels. All according to the mixture of concerns governing how we engage one another and our surroundings.

There is no accounting for the combination of concerns that makes us who we are. Or more accurately, no recalling the forces that acted on us in our formative years when we were young and more helpless than we remember being at the time. Our parents ruled us via their loops of engagements much as we rule our own children, laying down the law in some cases, letting others slip by. But the structure of our understanding of ourselves and our worlds—whether science rules our hearts, religion does, our passions and appetites, or our addictions—the lives we have lived up to now seem sensible to us as the only lives we can refer to, so we live as if we are destined to go on in the same way as before.

If there is a logic to our concerns, it is the logic of precedents from days we barely remember. As we were treated, so do we treat others and call it fair, just, and deserving. Our loops and memories were forged by powerful emotional experiences, most of which we conveniently disremember. In truth, I am still the same little kid I was when I roamed the hills of central New York State in the 1930s, living now as if the conditions that prevailed in those days still apply. My engagements are just that, my engagements because that’s how I learned to make myself happen in my little world. There’s no breaking free from my formative past because it still bears on the neural network that governs my looping perceptions and actions today.

Every one of us is privileged (or condemned) to follow the dictates of our most intimate pasts. Those dictates are rarely codified in so many dos and don’ts, prescriptive formulas, or commands. That isn’t the language our concerns were received in. We duly and emotionally lived them at the time. And they are still with us in the complex neural networks that make up our brains and on which our minds are dependent to this day. We are variations on a theme we first met long ago. We hang around like old songs and poems from childhood, our lives still having the same Mother Goose lilt they did then.

Our religious, political, and cultural beliefs strive to maintain continuity with our childhoods in the deep Paleolithic period of our most intimate selves. We are today descendents of whom we were in those beginning times. We see and hear now as we learned to see and hear then. We think now as we learned to think then. We believe now as we learned to believe because we didn’t know any better in those early days.

So, yes, we look upon the world of today, but see with old eyes, hear with old ears, believe with naive wits, and in all innocence think we behold the world as it is. We are creatures of our acculturation and upbringing to this day. There is no escaping who we were and how we were introduced to the world through engagement with those whose example gave us our eyes and ears, sensitivities and tastes.

We act today by the logic of precedents received in earlier times—as if they were still valid to this day. We may outgrow our clothing but we carry our primal beliefs as if they still fit us as they did when we were brand new.

In fact, the religions, political parties, and philosophies we practice are all in our heads, carryovers from yesteryear, aided and abetted by the cultural institutions we create and maintain to insure we always have a place to go that reminds us who we were and have been ever since. But institutions have particular clout and endurance because they are dedicated to holding fast to our memberships to gain access to our minds in order to set the climate within which we act.

Think of the great temples, mosques, cathedrals, palaces, government buildings, sporting arenas, universities, theaters, and corporate headquarters whose sole purpose is to keep us in our place exactly where they want us. That is, keep our minds in place so that we behave correctly as they would have us behave. Think of the established, authoritarian governments of North Korea, China, Syria, Iran, Russia—and now the United States of America—governments that attempt to institutionalize their peoples lest they wander off track, learn to think for themselves, and risk becoming ungrateful and unruly.

The bigger such climate enforcers become, the stronger they blow on our minds to whip them into conformity. And if they blow our minds away, from the rubble a renewed people arise who are capable of making up their own minds and living their own lives. Freedom is a personal matter that cannot be imposed by force. It is always earned by exercising the creative imagination of unique individuals, and always flows from those few exemplars who show the way. They are true leaders in mapping out the routes we must follow in being truly ourselves. Routes that give glass, steel, and stone institutions a wide berth in sticking to pathways mere mortals can trend on their own.

Invention and discovery are ways to the future; dogma, ideology, and correct performance lock us into the past. The most difficult challenge we face in becoming ourselves is in freeing ourselves from utter dependence on our past histories as institutions preserve them. No one becomes free in an institution. To be free in our minds requires us to grow beyond the influence of our first cultural enforcers so that at last we discover who we are as free agents.

As always, I remain y’rs truly, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Last week I showed a PowerPoint featuring eagles, herons, harbor seals, and sandpipers to the afternoon program at a local grammar school. All the photos of wildlife I showed had been taken within a mile of the school. I told the kids that they had the same opportunity to see what I saw if they’d get outdoors and look around. They were a great group, paid attention to every slide, and asked excellent questions.

On my way to the school, I’d seen first one great blue heron take off from the shallows along the river river, then another right behind it. Typically, great blues arrive from the southland on the first of April, but they were early this year. Driving home afterward, I saw an adult American bald eagle fly over the road just ahead of me. My message in the talk was that in order to see such sights, you have to take the initiative to look around and engage your surroundings right where you are.

The one question that really got to me (even though I didn’t field it very well when I heard it) came during the sandpiper section from a soft-spoken boy who asked, “How can you tell the difference between all those kinds of birds?” I said something to the effect that I worked at it because knowing my wild neighbors was important to me, and I’d kept my eyes open for opportunities to get to know them better. But driving home, that boy’s question stayed with me. We learn the names and characteristics of things that are important to us—things we engage with—such as tools, super heroes, makes and models of cars, brands of ice cream, TV shows, celebrities, singers, and as in my case, birds and other forms of wildlife. I engage with every bird I see, and try to get to know it by name.

I had set up a teachable moment in that boy’s mind, and, driving along, I thought about how I could come up with an answer worthy of the question. We get good at doing things we pay attention to because they matter to us. Paying attention is the key, noticing in this case how birds are similar to one another, and how they are different. And having names for the different groups we can sort them into. The trick is to build on skills the kids already have and work from there by refining and expanding that foundation. Every student in the room knew the difference between, say, a robin, a crow, and a chickadee when they saw one, though they probably hadn’t thought about how they came to know what they already knew.

That’s what I could point out to them, how they already knew how to tell a crow was a crow and not a robin or chickadee. Size mattered, color, voice, habitat, way of moving on the ground and in the air, what they ate, who eats them, where commonly seen. Once they had grasped that, they could make a list of things they’d like to know about a bird to be able to identify it. They could move on to other common birds in the vicinity, and then to ones they saw only occasionally, like migrating warblers and hawks. Then they could pore through bird guides that set down the kinds of things we want to know in systematic order, and the kids could come to understand that order so they could make easy use of it.

I telephoned the woman who’d set up the afterschool program, and asked if we could have a follow-up session to address the question of how to provide a framework that would help kids learn more about birds on their own. She thought that was a great idea, and would speak to school administrators about how we might fit it into the schedule. Or if not that, how we could cover it in the summer camp offered by a local nonprofit. The wheels are turning, trying to build on a challenge a particular student wanted addressed.

That, to me, is how true education takes place. Adults rising to the occasion of addressing issues that students feel are important. Which requires teachers to listen to students and not strictly vice versa. Learning is a matter of give-and-take, making educated guesses, learning what the possibilities are, trial and error in the field, with as much practice as you’re willing to put into studying a guidebook and watching birds.

We learn about situations we get ourselves into, and in which we want to do better the next time. Enjoying the effort as a kind of adventure helps us improve our skills over time. Which is very different from completing homework that others assign to us. It’s the homework and fieldwork we assign to ourselves that really matters. If we want to get good at identifying birds, we first have to set that as our goal, then carry out projects and exercises that help us grow into the skills we want to learn.

If we want to learn how to use chopsticks, we have to be willing to work at learning that skill by actually eating—poorly at first—with chopsticks. It helps to eat food that comes in small chunks suited to being levered into our mouths. Learning to feed ourselves has strong survival value, so we’ll eventually catch on, particularly when we see others modeling the skills we’d like to get good at. In learning to play the guitar, it helps to admire those who can play the kind of music that we like.

In learning new skills, motivation is essential, close observation of others performing those skills, willingness to practice, and patience in keeping at it until our skills match theirs. Slowly, we grow into the person we’d like to become. That is, we make ourselves happen as who we’d like to be.

Self-transcendence is driven by urges inside every one of us, different in each case. The lives we create for ourselves are proof of the effort we put into being who we are moment-by-moment. Being the person others want us to be is a form of service to them. Being who we want to become fulfills the most basic freedom we are born to. We didn’t ask to be born, so can only rise to the the occasion of our birth by setting goals worthy of our human potential.

The job of educators, as I see it, is to engage with their students very closely in order to support their setting worthy life goals and choosing projects to enhance their development while, at the same time, making sure they explore the full range of their options, and become aware of possible dangers and limitations. Then to speed them on the course they set for themselves—and get out of their way.

Learning is always personal and experiential. Teachers can promote and encourage the process, but they cannot deliver it to their students via books, lectures, videos, or presentations. Teachers can be guides and models, but not passers-on or imparters of wisdom. Experience is something we reach-for and live, not get as a gift. When I was in basic training, my sergeants did their best to turn me into a killer, and I gave them an A for making the effort—but they failed. They set me up to poke my bayonet into a straw dummy while yelling, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” but I recognized the exercise as metaphorical and that I was only going through the motions. I became a still photographer in the Signal Corps and spent my days lugging a camera, not a rifle, which was the best use the Army could have made of the skills I brought with me when I was drafted.

Education by command, authority, and fear is always a failure because it entails mind control, not learning. If any vestige of understanding is achieved, it is only a thin layer that will quickly rub off. I think of all the capitals I memorized in school, the national imports and exports of every country in South America, the Presidents in serial order, the differential equations. Now gone with the wind. Since getting my first camera for a box top and a quarter when I was four, I have worked at developing my visual skills, and made a living at it. Now that kind of film photography hardly exists any longer, so I’ve had to go digital, which I’ve done on my own.

Self-directed learning always morphs into the next big challenge, and the challenge after that because we keep growing into new versions of our selves until we die. Lifelong learning is directed by our self-governing loops of engagement. Those loops serve as our primary means for following our bliss. Once we figure out what resources are available, and how to make use of them, we can learn anything we put our minds to. We don’t need teachers, schools, or colleges; we simply live our own lives.

That’s my second take on the grand topic of education. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but the essence of my argument is that schools need to teach to the inner student, not the external demands of a society built to satisfy the views of a ruling elite.

Thanks for listening. And for being yourself to the hilt. –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Education (from Latin educare, to lead out) does not mean burdening students with homework; it means drawing-out that which is already within them. When students walk in the door on the first day of school, they are chock-full of vivid, unsorted experiences from the lives they have led up to that instant. Which so-called educators largely ignore in their rush to turn out dutiful workers, engineers, soldiers, and voters suited to the needs of businesses and corporations, ignoring the needs of the students themselves as creative members of a civil society.

Most grownups sincerely believe that the trouble with young people is that they do not yet know what their elders have learned from personal experience. Historians are convinced that students must be steeped in the study of history, scientists believe it is essential to study science, mathematicians tell us the world needs more and better mathematicians, writers argue for an essential grounding in literature. Geographers, artists, politicians, mechanics, athletes, nutritionists—all advocate for immersing students in their particular field.

Meanwhile, who advocates for students grappling with the myriad issues they bring with them to school, but which go largely unaddressed?

Education is firmly grounded in a trickle-down methodology by which what is good for the teacher is seen as being good for the student, relieving teachers of any responsibility to address the myriad issues that drive student learning and motivation.

Strange business. If students are to benefit from their education, they have to trick the system into providing engagements meaningful to them as individuals, not the system. They have to outwit their teachers by going through the motions while gleaning tidbits of personal interest and value on the side.

The upshot is that students are caught in an intense classroom conflict between their concrete personal needs and the abstract needs of a society that sincerely believes it knows what it wants, but gets it at the neglect of those it claims to help.

No wonder schools are in crisis all across the nation. With teachers and administrators looking down on their pupils as inferior beings, while students are looking up to adults for guidance and leadership, there is no meeting of minds where true engagement can occur, true education take place.

The result is unmet objectives on both sides, frustration, and a sense of conflict and enmity instead of caring and affection.

The solution? Before students can learn about the world, they must come to understand themselves and the lives they have led up to now. Then they will gradually be able to apply that inner understanding to challenges beyond the ones they have already met in their personal lives. As a result, growing larger and more competent by developing skills valued as productive in the adult world while at the same time achieving a sense of basic, personal growth and satisfaction.

The secret is that every student is previously engaged with a personal curriculum in living their lives as they do, at home, in the streets, with family and friends, now largely dominated by technologies that did not exist when their parents were young.

If student skills and needs are not addressed from the get-go, who, exactly, is being educated? No one. No one, single, unique human person. Myths and ideals cannot be educated for they are fixtures of the mind. Only real, flesh-and-blood people can undergo learning, and they do so by pursuing the urgings of their own motivations, not by being told what to do by others under the influence of motivations of their own.

To grow beyond their former selves, students need to augment the brain connections they have already formed by building upon, not denying, them. This requires suiting education to the needs of each student, not layering a Uniform Standard Curriculum upon him or her.

What we do best in our schools is domesticate children so they will be trained to the society we have built around ourselves. We turn out servants of businesses and the all-encompassing economy we believe in so profoundly as the highest of all human achievements. Our aim is clear. If we want our children to make a living so they can support a family, we make clear to them what they must do to make the same mistakes we made so they turn out like us.

A parent’s job comes down to helping with homework assigned by strangers—teachers, administrators, distant school committees, remote schools of education. Those who claim to know better than they (parents) and their children do themselves.

Yes, I know this is a gross caricature, an out-and-out cartoon. But loving teachers who know their pupils and work for, not against them—such teachers prove my point because they must be subversive in getting around the system that pays their salaries. Imagine teaching to the student and not the test! Another alternative is for parents to turn to home-schooling their own children. These teachers and parents are exceptions to the system as it is now established and argued across the land.

When I was a kid at this time of year, I learned about watersheds by climbing the hills ringing my small town and getting sopping wet playing for hours in the runoff streaming down the slopes. I made dams, channels, boats, and waterfalls with my cold, bare fingers, using twigs and stones, loving every minute, doing something I had waited all winter to do. I didn’t read about watersheds on an intellectual basis, I lived them in my most intimate experience. It was no accident that in my 50s and 60s I wrote about watersheds as nature’s water receiving, storing, and distributing systems, systems that make life of all sorts possible in myriad basins around the Earth. Terrain, water, sunlight, gravity, and photosynthesis, that’s what watersheds are about.

Writing up 60 hikes in Acadia National Park in 1998, I drew on my life experience with watersheds to portray water flowing off the hills of Acadia through the soil, high ground to low, leaving dry habitats on the summits, creating damp reservoirs in surrounding valleys. I accounted for the distribution of plants from one region to another, and the distribution of animals that fed on those plants. This was something I had lived my whole life, not something I had been taught. In my life, no one I ever met thought it a good idea to even mention watersheds, much less engage with them right where I was. I did that on my own. And that doing, that engaging, has made me the person I am today for it has shaped my mind to do more of the same wherever I find myself.

In the same way, I have always been mystified by the workings of my own mind, and have set myself on a course of investigation to learn as much as I can about my unique, personal consciousness. My method of study is empiricism of the innermost kind. What I know about consciousness, I know despite my education. In graduate school, I wanted to know why two different people standing next to each other could be drawn to different aspects of their surroundings, and have different opinions about what they experienced. The developer pictures a golf course where I see a wetland. I could find no courses dealing with human interpretation, so did independent study in getting both my so-called master’s and doctor’s degrees—in education, no less.

Writing this blog, I am my own man, opening myself to you as your own person, hoping to connect in ways I cannot imagine, to engage in ways both you and I find meaningful from our respective points of view. I don’t know any other way to live than to be myself to the hilt. A risky venture, but reflection after reflection, at least it’s my venture. And adventure.

That’s what engages me and draws me out. The question of all questions is, what engages you and draws you out of yourself? As ever, –Steve