What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.

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What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.

 

The genius of organized sports is in having players and teams show their prowess by taking turns at offense and defense, attack and protection, and in the case of baseball, batting and running, pitching and fielding.

The precincts for offense and defense are strictly confined, particularly for the team on offense. Batters are restricted to a home plate and two rectangles, one on either side of the plate, to stand in and swing at the ball; three bases forming, with home plate, a diamond ninety feet on a side; batters having a right-of-way to run the bases around the sides of the diamond.

The defending team occupies the much larger precinct that includes the infield within the diamond, together with the outfield lying between two foul lines meeting in a ninety-degree angle at home plate and extending for a minimum of 250 feet beyond the infield diamond out to the fence defining the far edge of the outfield.

As attackers of the defenders’ territory, batters come up in specified order one-at-a-time until three of them have been put out of play, at which time the teams trade roles. The batting order is based on players’ records for hitting the ball or getting on base.

The defending team, however, is on duty at their respective stations for the full time they are in the field (half of each inning in a string of nine innings). The pitcher throws from the center of the diamond, sixty-and-a-half feet from home plate. The catcher crouches behind the plate to direct defensive play by giving signals with fingers held between his legs to suit the next pitch to the batter’s prowess and situation.

Three basemen stand near their respective bases, with a shortstop to back them up. Three outfielders spread themselves between right, center, and left field, at a distance governed by their expectations of where the batter is likely to hit the next ball.

The essence of baseball is the duel between the defensive pitcher on his mound and offensive batter at home plate. Pitcher and catcher form a tactical team on the axis of play trying to outwit the batter at each throw.

The batter, as lone member of the offense (unless others are on base) tries to outwit the pitcher by carefully selecting the pitches he elects to swing at. Three swings and misses and he’s out, unless he fouls the ball after two strikes, in which case he keeps on until he either gets a hit or third strike.

If the pitcher throws four balls outside of the strike zone (over the plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders), the batter gets a pass to first base, and any runner at first base gets a pass to second.

The umpire standing behind the catcher calls each pitch not swung at as a strike if it passes through the strike zone, or a ball if wide, high, or low.

The ball is in play from any given pitch until the ball is returned to the pitcher’s glove, thereby starting the next play.

The central drama of the game is played out by pitcher and catcher in setting up the play, and batter in making what he can of their efforts. They are playing to get him out; he is playing to reach first base or farther, or at least to help other runners advance around the diamond back to home plate, scoring one point for each round of the bases at the corners of the diamond.

It takes more time to write about the action than to see it happen in actual play. Pitchers these days can throw the ball at over ninety miles-an-hour, mixing fast balls with curves, sliders, knuckle-balls, balls that change pace or break one way or another, and other pitches intended to outwit the batter.

Batters are ever on the alert for balls that look like they’re headed over the plate, but take a detour in the last fraction of a second.

Fans divide their support between teams, and show strong reactions to anything that goes against their personal allegiance, particularly if it leads to a score by the “wrong” team. Hopes on both sides run high, and spirits droop when events or judgments go against the favored team. Odds seem to favor the nine defensive players strategically placed around the field facing only one offensive batter at a time, each needing only three strikes to be put out of play.

But in that small window of opportunity, batters can hit balls through the defense, over its head, or even out of the park. With a runner on base, the situation gets more intense for both sides. With two or three runners in position around the bases, a pitcher can still throw in only one direction at a time, so the odds shift to the offense, unless the next batter hits into a double- or even triple-play, the likelihood of which increases with the number of base runners spread around the diamond.

Or perhaps the next batter slams a home run over the fence, sending four runners across home plate (including himself), releasing pandemonium throughout the stadium and spreading far and wide into the radio and TV audience, echoing within millions of individual black boxes around the world.

More than a pastime, baseball is a state of consciousness to which humans as wayfarers (or base runners) are innately suited by the inherent makeup of their minds as the medium of engagement between their inner and outer worlds of awareness. That engagement between opposing teams is the issue in each game, which must be played out to determine which is the better team for the span of intense activity it takes for that particular game to play out.

 

In training, individual players build their respective skills on one level, and practice working together as a team on another. There may be individual heroes in baseball, but it takes heroic effort by all concerned to build a team that can face every possible situation with shared skill and confidence.

Each player must stand ready to play his part without advanced notice. Each is playing an inner game of expectancy before a play even starts to unfold. As is each watcher in the stands, stadium, or living room. In that sense, players and fans are engaged for the duration of the game, however long it takes for one side to win.

Baseball is all about arousal, anticipation, seeing what happens, recognizing what that means from a personal perspective. Then, of all possible responses, seizing instantly on the one judged most effective, and following through on plays that have been practiced in countless situations under a variety of different conditions.

Anything can happen, and what actually does happen comes as a spontaneous show of coordinated (or not) team skill, strength, speed, effort, and accuracy.

Baseball gives fans an endless flow of opportunities to be personally conscious. Each witnesses the game with her own eyes and ears, own sense of anticipation, own flow of perceptual, meaningful, and active engagements.

Being there at the game is like inventing yourself on the spot, again and again as situations come, evolve, and lead on to the next. This is what fans live for. If baseball didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it as a rule-governed alternative to the horrors of war, revolution, strife, violence, genocide, and mass murder.

Civilized nations rely on games to ward off the inevitable slippage into violence and chaos resulting from friction between factions having different perspectives on the world. Harnessing such perspectives in orderly pursuits such as baseball, soccer, basketball, and tennis makes the world safe for civil governance that actually serves to keep people meaningfully occupied and productive.

Baseball is no frill; it is a civil necessity—along with art, music, dance, Earthcare, full employment, and a fair distribution of wealth—to maintain a healthy state of mind among peoples accustomed to different ways of engaging one another in their separate worlds. Or worse, as in boredom, not engaging at all.

 

Living in a small village is one thing; you know everyone by name, know their children, what they do for a living, when they are sick. You can afford to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they are good people, and help them when they have a setback. By helping a neighbor in a village, you are likely helping one of your relatives who shares some of your genes.

But when an entire culture intrudes into our safety zone by mail, phone, TV, newspaper, magazine, internet, email, cellphone, connecting us to everything that’s happening every minute of our lives—culture is no longer our friend or relative but is clearly out to get at us in our homes and other places where we used to feel safe and snug.

It’s not our culture so much as theirs, whoever all those people are who commandeer our personal engagements for purposes of their own. I know they are out there; I get emails, letters, and phone calls from them every day trying to convince me to follow their agenda.

Perhaps in some far and mythical past, cultures were built and maintained by groups for the mutual benefit of all members. When people got sick, others took care of them. When they needed help, others lent a hand.

But now there are so many of us, and we come in so many varieties, we can’t identify with the whole, so tend to defend ourselves by reducing our decisions to yes-or-no choices, stay or flee, love or hate, pass or fail.

As it turns out, this is exactly how our minds work on the most basic level. Neurons either fire or they don’t, send signals forward or not, excite or inhibit, engage or stand pat. Our minds are made to reduce complex issues to simple choices so that we can act decisively in short order.

Which holds as true in cultural as in natural settings. Culture exists for our personal benefit so that our needs can be met with minimal fuss, delay, and expense. When it gets out of hand and causes more trouble than we can bear, it consumes us as so much fodder for the benefit of aggressive others, not as individuals worthy in themselves.

In the end, cultures are governed by nested layers of laws, ordinances, rules, edicts, ignorance, and hearsay. With culture serving as a buffer between humans and nature, we thrive on obeying the rules, such as they are. That way we can coordinate our efforts, take turns, play our parts in synchrony with others, practice, rehearse, and improve our performance so that we eventually get it right—either that, or are proven wrong once again.

Rules of one sort or another are what make cultures work for a wide diversity of people looking out from the relative calm and shelter of their subjective states. And if they don’t work all that well, they can always be improved.

Along with rules come the enforcers. The leaders, teachers, trainers, coaches, managers, directors, supervisors, inspectors, umpires, referees, timekeepers, linesmen, hall patrollers, quality controllers, and all the rest.

Their job is to make sure the rules are obeyed, which challenges us to do our best within tight constraints. We can harmonize our efforts, play our parts, go solo, work in unison, or in duets, trios, quartets . . . unto nonets and beyond. Which takes training, practice, rehearsal, anxiety, adrenalin, and giving our all.

Being under direction the whole way assures coordination of specialized efforts to achieve maximum effect by smoothing and synchronizing our individual performances as they issue from the passionate core of our respective black boxes.

Culture, then, is the great stabilizer that balances and coordinates our myriad individual efforts for the common good (or ill). Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Symphony Hall is one cultural event at which I was present in my little black box back in 1951. It was, well, fantastique.

Others have watched or run in the Boston Marathon; cheered Harvard on against Yale; attended Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots games; taken flights from Logan Airport; cruised among the islands in Boston Harbor; visited the Science Museum and Massachusetts General Hospital; read the Boston Globe; and borrowed books from Boston Public Library.

Such coordinated events and institutions are not generally possible in nature. It is human culture that sponsors them, and human individuals that support the opportunities for engagement they offer. Without culture, we wouldn’t be anything like who we are. Imagine being born in the Neo- or Paleolithic Era.

Whether we are deferential or assertive personality types, culture forms, stirs, provokes, instructs, and challenges us to grow into the people we become. And that profound influence is not so much in our brains as in our cultural experience as enabled by our brains. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take country culture out of the boy. Country culture isn’t so much in the boy’s brain as it is in the integrated style of his engagements, in his way of being himself. Through years of engagement, it resides in his eyes, ears, muscles, clothing, vocabulary, and neural pathways, ready to be activated on demand.

Music is a branch of culture that makes it possible for people to gather for the purpose of making noise. The art is in the integrity of the noise, how it all fits together. What string quartets and jazz ensembles release in me is a sensitivity to and appreciation for the interplay between separate voices weaving in and out among their companions.

I find musical chords boring. I like polyphony, each voice playing its part. It’s the difference, not the sameness that gets me. The playful gap between voices, the delta, the dichotomy, the discrepancy, the polarity, the disparity. In brief, the close encounter, engagement, relationship, interaction. Moving in, then away, then back again by a different route.

It’s the wayfaring. Playfully finding the way in easy company. I turn off the switch on jazz that blows the loudest, highest, longest. That’s for the Olympics. So what? I say to myself. It’s not individual prowess in itself I want to hear but deftness in relating to others. The more spontaneously the better and more engaging. That is my preference. I am not a rational or reasonable person. I’m out for adventure. That’s what I seek and pay attention to. The lilt and surprise, not the pure form. Not the logic.

The flow of situations through the mind makes up what we call a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Each baseball player in a given game lives his own story from the perspective of his defensive position on the field and offensive turns at bat. The story of the game as a whole is a compilation of the stories lived by the individual players (characters) as woven into a coherent narrative binding the high points of separate plays into a pattern making up the flow of collective experience from first to last inning.

The basic organization (plot) of the 2014 World Series as played out in Kansas City (beginning and end) and San Francisco (middle) is based on the conflicting motivations of two teams from different regions each dedicated to defeating the other. Conflict between worthy adversaries is at the heart of every game of baseball (football, basketball, soccer, cricket, chess, bridge, etc.) That is, each game is meant to display the similarities and differences between two teams playing by the same rules under identical circumstances, the score giving a measure of their relative strengths and weaknesses on a particular occasion.

Which is a gross generalization when put into words, while each game of baseball is based on specific comparisons played out on the field: strike or ball, fair or foul, safe or out, left or right, on or off, fast or slow, stop or go, ahead or behind, win or lose. Each game is told by its experiential specifics at the time of play, not its watered-down statistics after the fact.

The drama is in the setting up, enacting, and fulfillment of one play after another in the stream of each player’s consciousness. The game exists in the subjective experience of all in attendance, not in the record books which are dry summaries stacked on shelves.

What we notice at the time are the contrasts that test our expectancies for better or worse, falling short in disappointment or exceeding in joy at the way thing turn out. That’s where the excitement and adventure lie—in the difference between what we expect and what happens on the field. Every play sprouts from the soil prepared by preceding plays. Each game is organic, not factual or statistical. It lives in the minds of those who witness it. Those fully present to each play as it unfolds.

Baseball plays right into the arms of consciousness, which thrives on contrasts, differences, oppositions, disparities, and surprises. Pea soup is an apt metaphor for fog because it’s the same all around us, masking the beacons and landmarks we need to navigate by. Baseball wakes us up. It is nothing but landmarks for navigating the bases, infield, outfield. Keep your eye on the ball and act accordingly. Singles, doubles, triples, home runs—these are the outstanding features of baseball, along with pitches, catches, throws, swings, hits, misses, walks, bunts, stolen bases, outs, and errors. You never know what the next pitch will bring.

In game 7, Mike Moustakas’ triple with two out in the bottom of the ninth sent an electric jolt through every mind in the park. As Pablo Sandoval’s catch a few heartbeats later gave an even bigger jolt, clinching a year of champion pride for the Giants, a year of regretful determination for the Royals.

Those jolts are what baseball is all about. Showing what you can do. Playing to make a difference. Distinguishing yourself in a field of worthy rivals. That is the essential story of our living our lives on this Earth. Not eliminating the competition as in warfare, but bringing it up to your level so you can both do your best, even if at the moment one comes in first and the other second.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

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

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

 

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

What do these men all have in common?

  • Slobodan Milosevic
  • Muammar Gaddafi
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Saddam Hussein
  • Mao Zedong
  • Kim Jung Il
  • Augusto Pinochet
  • Pol Pot

Yes, all tyrannical personalities. And all dead.  In the annals of life on Earth, each of us—including those men I have listed—stands as a distinct human personality unlike any other. Our childhood rearing is unique, our education is unique, our job histories, our aspirations, accomplishments, memories, feelings, values, sex lives—all unique. Because our loops of engagement are singular in each case.

What we share is our individuality. Some have been applauded in their time, others feared, condemned, or despised. Many have died violent deaths or been judged harshly by those they abused. But my point here is that none of them is inherently good or evil. Each is the product of the life that he lived, the outcome of a unique loop of engagement that made him turn out as he did. If any other genetically different person had experienced such a life, he would likely have turned out much the same.

Goodness or badness is a judgment by others, not an inherent attribute or personality trait. In putting such people to death for whatever reason, we are killing them for being what their life experiences have made them—as our own unique experiences have made us.

Taking the life of anyone for being who they are at a time of weakness is a form of absolute tyranny in itself, often stemming from personal animosity or hatred toward someone whose actions are shaped by his or her lifelong experience in particular places with particular people in particular eras. Taking violent action against people we don’t agree with is a crude form of asserting our supposed superiority over others, when in truth our diversity is founded in each case on our living under conditions specific to ourselves.

No one is conceived or born under the influence of evil stars such as Shakespeare may have drawn Caliban, Richard III, or Iago. We may become evil by living under evil circumstances—by being abused as children, for instance, or by being denied basic needs in our formative years, or serving a battle-stressed life in the military. In the list above, no one is inherently evil without having lived a life of cruelty, need, or abuse. We know that suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder does not make a veteran evil, though he may commit acts perceived and judged as such. Yet when it comes to tyrants, we make them pay for their crimes rather than lead them through a bout of truth and reconciliation as we saw in South Africa at the end of apartheid.

Instead of doing violence to such persons, we would do better to help them in viewing the results of their actions as others see them. Which is far easier to say than to do. We do not readily take responsibility for our engagements because each of us believes that he or she knows what life is about, and lives it as it is meant to be lived. It is difficult to imagine that we make ourselves happen as we do because of a loop of engagement set in motion by our being who we are, where we are. Or that we are so accustomed to living such a loop that we do not see that we ourselves are the figure behind the curtain pulling the levers that control us.

But in fact we make ourselves happen every second of our lives according to lessons learned through earlier experience. We mindlessly cling to ways that are familiar, believing we have no alternative available to us. It’s back to the future in every case, our fate being a foregone conclusion over which we assume we have little control. 

Rather than condemn tyrannical personalities to death or solitary confinement, I think it would be better to have them confront their atrocities so that they may ultimately come to transcend them. Rage has never brought about a good end. I offer both the felling of the Twin Towers and the American invasion of Iraq in retaliation as classic examples. Suicide by jihadis precludes truth and reconciliation, so their earthly salvation is moot.

Rather than punish those who offend us, we do better to help them see that their loops of engagement will lead to a bad end. By taking responsibility for what they have done, they can distance themselves from the habit of violence they picked up when young and go beyond it in seeking a life of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Sorry to sermonize, but I see so much needless violence in the world, I wanted to say something because violence breeds only violence, and we never break out of the loop. Y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2011

Here’s the last installment of the synopsis of my upcoming book, KNOW THYSELF: Adventures in Getting to Know My Own Mind. –Steve Perrin

Chapter 13, Reality. From my perspective, the big picture in my awareness constitutes my sense of the real world. That assumption is the basis of the human condition, or as I see it, predicament. Usually we assume that such an overview captures the essence of the physical, cultural, or economic world—as if it were somehow external to ourselves; but these are highly elaborate constructs or belief systems in our minds. Through introspection, I have learned that reality is a dynamic creation of my mind engaging what I can experience of my situation in the world through a looping engagement of continuous action alternating with paying attention to the results of such action. I create reality in subjective consciousness through a bioenergetic engagement between the unknowable-in-itself substrate provided by my embodied brain in dynamic relation with the unknowable-in-itself substrate of the physical world. In that sense, reality is a virtual figment maintained at considerable expense by my devoting a good portion of my life energy to the mutual interaction between my unknowable brain with its unknowable situation in the world.

Chapter 14, Conflict. Each of us being mentally unique, no two people live in the same world of awareness. Conflict comes with the variety of our outlooks on the world. To get along with one another, we have two options: cooperate, or do it my way. Another source of world conflict is caused by one person (group, corporation, nation) attempting to dominate the minds of others so they come around to a preordained way of thinking (voting, consuming, fighting, believing, buying). Much of America’s stance in the world (e.g., claiming to be the world’s only superpower) is based on convincing others to grant us a larger share of world resources than is warranted by our portion of the global population, allowing us to live higher on the hog than others may find fair or deserved. In daily life, we group ourselves by our common interests, forming subcultures (unions, managers, executives, artists, entertainers, immigrants, men and women, the young and the aged, etc.) that speak different languages and define themselves by their differences with subcultures viewed as standing in opposition to them. At the same time, we are great game players and watchers, pitting ourselves against other people, teams, nations, and so on in rule-governed competition. Rules make the difference between ruthless anarchy and civil society, but they require enforcement to make sure the field is level for all players. As a means of conflict resolution, games are played out in the minds of participants and spectators alike, loss in one game not being the end of the world because there’s always the rematch or next season to aim for, and the one after that. I include a post to my blog on the topic of harvesting rockweed in Maine as an example of dealing with conflict between seaweed harvesters and fishery managers, a topic I got into because of my conflict with one particular harvester.

Chapter 15, Power. The source of personal power is the assumption that I am right and you are wrong about an issue, and I am going to set you straight because it is to my advantage to do so. Each of us is more-or-less determined to dominate the mind of the other to the point of agreement, submission, or surrender. This is predominantly a patriarchal or “father knows best” strategy, in contrast with a matriarchal strategy such as “let’s build a relationship,” thereby spreading networks of mutual support to children, spouses, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and surrounding communities. Exerting power over other minds is a way of dressing personal authority as a virtue, personal ideology as a civic benefit. Wealthy politicians and corporations these days have legal teams, publicists, bank accounts, minions, profit-hunger, and arrogance enough to want to exert control over the reality in which others live their lives. This invites well-funded elites to dominate large sectors of the public mind, even depriving entire classes and generations of the right to be conscious for themselves.

There you have it in summary, a rough outline of my upcoming book, INTROSPECTION: Adventures in Getting to Know My Own Mind. More about its availability in subsequent posts.