Reflection 268: Nightmare

May 29, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

The thrust of consciousness is action in keeping with our personal memories, feelings, values, and concerns.        –

Consciousness is given us to achieve actions in the world that are appropriate to the situation we are in at the time, which we then adjust to the time after that, and the one after that, . . . after that. Which is far more complicated than simultaneous hand-eye coordination in being sequential for the duration of our individual lives. Consciousness evolves from one stage to the next, which points to the key role that memory plays as the platform on which each successive moment of consciousness is based—producing our respective streams of consciousness.

Without having a ready reference to each preceding moment, we could not enjoy the benefits of building a future for ourselves because we would forget where we were in the process and where we were heading. Resulting in the end of consciousness as we know it.

Yesterday I spent time on an island on the coast of Maine where I engaged with loons (which I both saw and heard), hermit thrushes and song sparrows (which I heard only), and an immature bald eagle (which I saw only). I say I engaged with these birds because my separate moments of attention built instant-by-instant across spans of up to thirty minutes. Without memory, I would never have achieved such enduring levels of engaged consciousness.

These engagements included not only the sensory impressions I formed one after another as the loons—there were five of them—called and moved about, but my interpretations of those sensory images as well, along with my understanding of loon behavior, the feelings aroused by that behavior, and my actions in raising, lowering, focusing, and sharing my binoculars with my companion.

I watched two loons circling each other, then diving, while a third loon farther off hooted, then ran across the water (I could hear the pat-pat-pat) leaving a wake of white splashes behind it for several hundred feet. A fourth loon called in the distance, and somewhat later a fifth loon surfaced after a long dive. All on an incoming tide bringing herring and other delectables into the bay. I’d say a good time was had by the parties engaged, including me. Which applies equally to the separate incidents with song sparrow, hermit thrush, and eagle.

Consciousness results from the application of personal attention to these kinds of events over time. Each incident flows from a commitment of attention for the duration of a particular engage-ment. This happens, then this, and then this. So consciousness emerges as a succession of memorable moments. Or, put differently, without memory we would dwell in a fog of disjointed events vanishing into emptiness inhabited only by simultaneous yearning and profound sense of loss, though we’ll never recall what it was that we lost.

All of which leads up to the dream I woke up from this morning. The imagery was not of birds but of some kind of performance I was involved in. A group of us was to deliver a recitation before a dignified audience in what seemed to be a structure such as a church or library. The issue being that I hadn’t memorized my part, and wasn’t sure if I could find it written out somewhere, though I suspected the best place to look for it would be in my room. Which I thought was in a large brick building, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I wasn’t dressed for the presentation, so was wandering along city streets, trying to get a glimpse of where I lived. I wanted to tell the man in charge of the performance that I was not prepared because I couldn’t find my script or my clothes, but I couldn’t find him. In the dream I was in that stupor resulting from not being engaged with anything. All I had were yearnings I could not direct or fulfill.

Lying in bed, I thought this is what H.M. must have felt like because his anterograde amnesia deprived him of the ability to form new memories after a brain operation to lessen the effect of severe epileptic fits. He was much researched and written-up in the second half of the twentieth century, and you couldn’t study psychology without coming across the story of H.M. He retained memories from before the operation, but was unable to form new memories after that event. He’d go out for a walk, and couldn’t remember where he was going, or where “back” was where he’d started out from.

That was my situation in my dream. I’d lost the ability to form new memories, so wafted about in a fog of uncertain yearnings, feeling terrible the whole time because I knew I was supposed to be doing something but wasn’t sure what it was or how to do it. If being crazy means losing your mind, I was dream crazy in having no way to find the mind and sense of engagement I once possessed but had no way to retrieve. Leaving me wandering around feeling awful among others who seemed filled with purpose.

That’s what my unconscious mind does with my preoccupation with loops of engagement as the source of conscious meaning in my life. The dream was apparently based on my participation in two evenings of PetchaKutcha at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. That’s the connection I made when I woke up. PetchaKutcha (meaning “blink of an eye” in Japanese) consist of twenty slides, each on the screen for twenty seconds, amounting to a presentation lasting six minutes and forty seconds. End of show; on to the next.

On the island surrounded by loons, I’d tried to download a video of my performance in Waterville a year ago onto my iPad, but could only get the twenty slides I showed without the track of what I’d said. That disjointed engagement fed into my growing understanding of how loops of engagement give birth to consciousness, providing a classic illustration of the chaos resulting from not being able to remember, forestalling the possibility of engagement.

The loons, download attempt, PetchaKucha, and concern with conscious engagements all blended into a nightmare in which I lived the agony of being in a coma incapable of sustaining consciousness, along with a pinch of dread at the fear of dying before I finish my work. That is the space in which I live these days, the space into which loons and PetchaKutcha emerge as milestones marking the winding-down of a life devoted to understanding consciousness through self-reflection.

Does it matter? It does to me. I believe that loops of conscious engagement offer a way of understanding why our relationships get so garbled as they often do, leading to conflict and often violent reactions.

America’s disastrous military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, stem from our then leaders’ loops of engagement with what they dubbed “terrorists”—as if a roving band of disgruntled youths sprang up from nowhere like so many mice from old rags with the aim of bringing our civilization down without cause. Indeed, there was cause, but we could not entertain it because we exhibited no curiosity in resorting to blaming that band and their leaders as the original cause of our troubles without seeking out the underlying cause that motivated them. Which in fact extends back to the conduct of American military and industrial personnel in Saudi Arabia, personnel lacking the sensitivity and imagination to anticipate the effect of their carefree dress and behavior on people of another civilization centered on modesty and mutual respect.

The error on both sides was in resorting to violence, which we should know by now is never a solution. Leaving us living in our dreams, disgruntled, frustrated, looking for ways to destroy the other for their presumptions. So it goes, loops of hurt and fury instead of understanding and engagement. Instead of learning from our experience, we perpetrate further damage on our enemies as if they were always wrong and we always right instead of taking responsibility for engaging as equals out of mutual respect.

That, in short, is what I’m up to—trying to promote effective engagements appropriate to our true situation on a planet with low tolerance for chaos, aggression, and unexamined awareness.

The way out of this endless cycle? Checking on our engagements through careful scrutiny of our personal motivations and behaviors. It’s up to each of us individually lest our leaders betray us on their own authority and botch the engagements we carefully build up over a lifetime.

That’s where I’m at; where are you? Y’r friend, –Steve



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