Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness (Lulu.com, May 2013) by Steve Perrin

My latest book is about the structure and workings of consciousness as revealed through many years of personal self-reflection. Consciousness, I find, is aroused by a disparity between two nerve signals, much as depth perception results from a disparity between images at corresponding points on the retinas of our two eyes.

Such a disparity in signals might arise between sensory patterns as remembered in contrast to those currently perceived. That is, between expectancy and actual experience, or between the aim of a deliberate action and the effect it actually produces.

I think of that disparity as a relative “valence” such as that between right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, like and dislike, or attractive and repellant. If the valence indicates, for example, “that our impressions exceed or fall short of our expectations, then we become aroused, pay attention, and make a conscious effort to account for the difference so we can take appropriate action.” I think of a helmsman steering through fog by the deviance of his compass needle from his charted course to illustrate the idea of such a valenced signal

In this regard, I see the brain not as a computer but “as a vigilant comparator looking for the then in the now, and when not finding it, taking pains to update memory through conscious scrutiny.” That comparator is on duty whenever things, for better or worse, do not go as expected. Resulting in our streaming consciousness striving to keep up with events as they actually unfold in round after round of engagement. Our personal experience reflects those eternal rounds of engagement, much as the holding power of a screw derives from the helical course of its ramped threads through the wood into which it is turned.

Our minds have many alternative routes from perception to action that largely sidestep consciousness. Reflexes, mimicry, rote memorization, and habitual routines, for instance, proceed unconsciously according to our expectations. But when things do not go as expected, our minds are roused to take unanticipated factors into account. Personal consciousness is situated between perception and action, where it plays the vital role of supervising our rounds of engagement for as long as we concentrate on a particular task or activity.

The take-away message of my new book is that a course of introspection is advised if we are to take responsibility for the outcomes of our personal views and actions. Since every human mind is unique, only one person on Earth has both the motive and opportunity to acquaint any given mind. Our schooling generally deals with abstractions, concepts, and generalities, leaving the particular workings of our minds for us to deal with on our own. This book provides examples of how we might do just that. “The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria.” I use haiku as an example of “grappling with becoming aware of being aware” during moments that draw “us out of our everyday selves, heightening our engagement with life.”

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness is available at lulu.com. Search “Books” for “Steve Perrin” and you will come to it. The cost is $17.95 plus shipping.

 

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Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin

In 2008, I set out to get my thoughts in order by posting my disconnected reflections on consciousness, my aim being to assemble the gleanings into a book.

I wrote my first book on the topic, Consciousness: The Book, which I published in November 2011 on Lulu.com.

Now in June 2013, I have refined and expanded that work in my new book, On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness, also on Lulu.com.

This blog has served me as a scratch pad, allowing me to organize random thoughts on first-person consciousness into a coherent whole. I am happy with the results, feeling it is a highly cumulative process. The real work came in actually writing the books, that is, in turning the scratch pad into a finished work.

I do not plan to add additional posts to this blog. I will let it stand as what it is, a record of my past efforts to come to grips with my own mind through introspection. The books, I feel, go far beyond what I was able to achieve on wordpress.com. But without wordpress, the books would not exist. Thank you, wordpress.

Now my last thought is, if you have been interested in this blog, now buy the books that far transcend it. Go to lulu.com and search for “Steve Perrin.” Put On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness in your shopping cart and check out. That would be doing both yourself and me a favor. Don’t hold back; just do it. It may change your life.

Thanks for coming along on this ride. Y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin.

Today I uploaded the 3rd corrected proof of my new book, On My Mind, some of which I’d like to share with you as a token of what I’ve been up to for these many months, years, and it seems like ages. These two reflections come from the last chapter.

Above all. Wherever on Earth we are born—East or West, North or South—we are born of woman, and born to the stars. We are Earth made flesh looking upon a vista of lights in the sky. From the outset we are of two natures, mortal and celestial. Our lower nature is hard to bear because so fraught with peril, temptation, and suffering. Our higher nature is stunning in its harmonious radiance and diversity. Our task in each case is to balance our two natures, not to revel exclusively in either one or the other. This creates a tension within us, a yearning for both familial warmth and heavenly illumination combined in one life.

Which is what both science and religion strive to inspire: a unity of nurture and illumination in passionate embrace—religion by building on the past, science by opening to the future. Is that too much to ask? Love and awe together in one vessel? But that is precisely what the life force drives us to seek at each instant. As Buddha sought to master sickness, old age, and death through personal discipline. As Moses sought to bind his people under one law. As Jesus sought to discover loving harmony in the face of human diversity. As Mohammed sought to unite the fervor of three hundred sects into one ardent system of belief. As scientists are struggling today to reconcile four fundamental forces within one flash of coherent illumination, a task that yet evades them. As we all strive to achieve in our individual rounds of engagement, balancing our situated selves with our virtual worlds at each moment, being wholly ourselves in a universe wholly other, promoting individual happiness and the general welfare at the same time.

Even as we know it is impossible to attain such a balance in any truly enduring sense, we also know we have no choice but to keep trying out of deference to our parents (genetic heritage) and the cosmic order that led to our birth.

After all. Yes, we are unique individuals, and at the same time, members of families, tribes, peoples, and a particular universe. I have emphasized the subjective nature of my mind because that, I feel, is the level of consciousness I am (and I imagine we all are) apt to pay least attention to, so least understand. In the end I must acknowledge that in addition to our being ourselves, we all belong to higher natural and cultural systems of organization. In each case, our belonging is every bit as important as being who we are as individuals. My self is composed of particular organs and organ systems. When my liver gets sick, I get sick. When my brain suffers a stroke, I get confused. When my organ systems fail, I die.

Beyond my embodied self, I belong to an extended family that includes my parents, siblings, several spouses and partners, my children, and other relatives. Beyond my family, I belong to a tribe made up of bands of more-or-less similar families which, taken together, constitute a people. And every people belongs to its planet, solar system, and universe. Between my selfhood and layers of membership, I find I am a congress of organic beings, most of whom I would not recognize if I met them face-to-face. From the point of view of a bacterium on my skin or in my gut, I am a universe it takes wholly for granted, even though at every second its wellbeing depends on my mortal jelly.

When I say my individual self is situated between my perceptual and behavioral capabilities, that is true as far as it goes. But I am also situated within a family, community, species, and universe, each level far more complicated than I can imagine, much less contemplate. Somewhere there is an asteroid of some size orbiting the sun, an asteroid fated to collide with my exact coordinates on the surface of the Earth. There are similar future impacts heading my way in the context of my family, tribe, people, and geophysical coordinates. My being and belonging are functions of a universe containing, in addition to my mind, a host of such dramatic features as shooting stars, auroral displays, blossoms, nursing babies, plate tectonics, epidemics, collisions, extinctions, and all the other greater or lesser wonders and catastrophes we are subject to.

In the end, there is far more to our being and belonging than we can possibly grasp. I offer these reflections as so many petals blowing on the wind. While they last, I can only enjoy their swirling dance. Once free of my mind, their fate is their own.

Now that our journey together is over, I am trying to introduce myself before we part to give you a snapshot of your companion through these several chapters. I am he whose autobiography unfolds within a certain set of drives and feelings between overlapping motor and perceptual capabilities within a distinct body embedded in a unique family and its culture on a planet whirling around a nearby star in a galactic neighborhood and its universe.

That’s me, the one who does his or her best to engage the layers collectively making up such a situation while I briefly have the chance. And as near as I can tell, that’s also you.

Voyage of a lifetime, it has been a great trip. I can only wish you well from here on.

Like you, I’m still here, still working. Keep in touch.

Y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

 

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Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin

I got the idea in 2006, and since early 2008, I’ve been using this blog to sort my streaming thoughts on consciousness into a form that could be put into a book. Which is where I go from time to time when I’m not writing the blog but am in my head, putting my thoughts in order, expressing them in written form. I’ve produced two books that way, Consciousness: The Book in 2011; now in 2013, On My Mind, which I’ve just published this week through lulu.com.

OnMyMind_FRONT-COVER-blog-96 Front cover, On My Mind.

Here is the Preface (meant to explain how a particular book comes to be written) from my new book.

This book began a long time ago with an exploding star in a galaxy we now call the Milky Way. Its fuel expended, that star imploded into its own interior when gravity overcame its fading radiation. The collapse created a blazing forge that spewed atoms outward into space. Swirling as a cloud of gas and dust, those atoms circled a nameless star, coalescing five billion years ago into the third planet out from our sun. It didn’t take those atoms long to form self-replicating molecules, to diversify and evolve into complex organisms, some becoming conscious of themselves, their activities, and their surroundings. Engaging those surroundings, one organism stood up, roamed around, and as a creature of the universe, developed individuality from a center of unique experience, coming much later to develop ideas, speech, writing, art, dance, books, and diverse societies.

Waking up in the morning, I discover myself to be one such animal, conscious of myself in this universe, of my surroundings, and of my engagement with those surroundings. I think to myself, this is hot stuff. Hot as in the inside of stars. Fiery. Too hot to get near, much less grasp. So I work for thirty years to understand how I, an assemblage of water, soil, and air in the presence of sunlight, can wake up in the morning with such a thought in my head. I don’t understand how it is possible. Two years ago I brought out my first attempt at describing my mind in Consciousness: The Book. I learned a lot from that exercise and thought I could do better. So here is On My Mind, a second attempt to describe what it feels like for me to be conscious. My hope is to encourage others to make the same effort for themselves; then we can hold long conversations about the similarities and differences between us, and make a start at understanding how we can be conscious for the common good of this planet we all share together.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor, March, 2013

The blog I have created from my random thoughts has turned out to be cumbersome. Hard to use, hard to picture as one work having a common focus. In the book, I’ve taken the heart of my blog and developed it through a series of 163 new reflections divided into eight chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Depicting a Mind [putting together a map of my mind]
  3. Perception
  4. Action
  5. The Situated Self
  6. Loops of Engagement
  7. Reality
  8. Toward a Theory of Mind

Basically, perception addresses the question, What’s happening? The situated self asks, What does it mean? And action answers the question, What should I do?  The other chapters deal with how those three parts of my mind connect to one another, and to the great world beyond the far edge of my senses.

There you have it, this blog simplified and made coherent in book form. Which was what I was aiming to do from the start in 2006.

I’ve had over 30,000 hits on the blog. If any of you hitters in the U.S. want a copy of the book, you can get it for $17.95 plus postage at Lulu.com. Search for Steve Perrin under Books and you should come right to it.

Y’rs truly, –Steve from Planet Earth

 

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin   [with 1 diagram]

I’ve been working on my new book on introspective consciousness, so to give you a taste of what’s coming up, I offer this revised version of Toward a theory of consciousness to serve as a kind of summary of the eight chapters. I include Figure 5 to illustrate what I am talking about in pictorial form. Y’r friend, –Steve

TOWARD A THEORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

Situated-Self-Diag_5_96px

1. Subjectivity. By definition, consciousness is subjective; it cannot be fit into a framework that insists on objectivity. The locus of the unconscious may be the brain, but the locus of consciousness is the mind, enabled by the brain, but not identical to it in part or in whole, as an electrical circuit is not identical to the copper wire it is made of. Such circuits acquire characteristics by being turned on, as consciousness must be turned on or aroused. Such effects as resistance, inductance and capacitance arise from the existential flow of electrons within circuits, specifically, from interactions within that flow itself that affect how electrical energy is received, stored, and distributed. They arise from emergent and kinetic (not static) properties of electrons moving through closed circuits under particular conditions. Consciousness is somewhat similar in not being predetermined by the brain. Instead, as I see it, it rises above neural circuitry to interact through consonance and dissonance between its several parts.

Quantum physics incorporates minds into the observations they are likely to make. That is a huge step in the right direction. Insisting that subjective observers remain essentially pure and aloof from their personal observations is an exercise in ideology. Each observer is a multidimensional set of mental variables engaging the world in a variety of ways simultaneously. Results depend on what he or she had for lunch, whether he or she is well-rested, when he or she last had sex, and so on. When two or more scientists gather together, it only gets worse, that is, more complicated and less objective, because of the chemistry within and between them. I think a new branch of science allowing self-reflection as a productive and honorable profession based on first-person experience is due to emerge. This will compensate for deficiencies in the practice of neuroscience, allowing a more complete accounting for what consciousness is—and how it arises from the brain—to appear at last.

2. Three questions. In everyday practice, consciousness addresses three tacit questions: 1) What’s happening?; 2) What does that mean to me in my present situation?; and, 3) What should I do in response? Perception fields the first question, the situated self takes the second, and action resolves the third. At the risk of oversimplifying, I visualize the mind as being divided into interconnected departments or modules corresponding to this tripartite model. The perceptual department of mind extends between sensory receptors and the hippocampus, which facilitates the formation and recall of memories. What I call the situated self is at the heart of consciousness, with access to sensory impressions, understanding, memory, comparison, dreams, values, feelings, and imagination. And both of these departments connect to motor areas of mind and brain. The situated self connects via the planning areas of the brain, the province of judgment, decision, goals, projects, and relationships. The sensory department, too, can fire directly (and unconsciously) to the motor area, where impulse and habit can direct personal effort and force toward the world beyond.

But the story doesn’t end there, for by being caught up in a program of action, perception is set to gauge what happens next in order to follow-through on its commitment to effective and appropriate action, revising or even countering its initial assessment. Few actions are ends in themselves; most are stages in an ongoing progression of continuous activity. As in tennis, the game isn’t over once you serve the ball; you immediately position yourself to hit it again as it whizzes back over the net, and then again, and again. If you want to eat, you provision your pantry, decide what to have, prepare it, cook it, serve it, eat it, and wash up afterwards—and repeat the performance a few hours later.

I visualize personal consciousness as a process of ongoing activity which modifies our felt situation as we go, morphing time and again into a wholly new situation, which we fail to address at our peril. Survival is somewhat like tennis: we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball at all times. A rhinoceros could rumble out of the bushes any moment or, more likely, a child could chase a ball into the road ahead. The prize goes to the ever vigilant, not merely the fast, strong, smart, or beautiful.

3. Loops of engagement. The succession of perception-situation-action never ceases. I picture consciousness in terms of never-ending looping engagements by which any given action immediately initiates a subsequent round of perception-situation-action until the situation itself is no longer relevant, stopping the clock, inviting other situations to take over and start a new round, spiral, or helix of engagement. This spiraling (because never coinciding with its exact beginning) series is far more than a succession of working memories or hand-eye coordinations; this is how we make ourselves happen in the process of continually reinventing ourselves and our worlds.

4. Organ systems. Humans did not create consciousness all by themselves; they inherited it from their distinguished ancestors who, even on the cellular level, discovered that the membrane setting an organism off from its immediate environment had to be permeable in both directions, in and out. Exchange (interaction, give-and-take) was the rule, not the brilliant exception. At every scale, metabolisms need to be fed from the outside, and the buildup of waste products simultaneously eliminated. Voilà: the loop of engagement. The same basic principle applies to our pulmonary, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, immune, integumentary, and nervous systems. Looping engagements do not exist apart from the organic world; they are the heart of that world. So it should be no surprise that they are at the heart of consciousness as well.

5. Polarity. Consciousness is bipolar in nature, having both an interior and exterior pole. The situated self is the inner pole, the virtual or conjectural world being the outer. When we are born, we have no idea what we are getting into. We consist of an inner pole that has only its discomforts and satisfactions to go on as driven by the life force, but other than by crying or sucking, we have yet to learn how to engage in order to get more of what we want, and less of what we don’t want. Mother holds us in her arms, sharing her bodily warmth, her milk, her love, whispering softly, “Don’t cry little baby, stick with me and all will be revealed.” We do, and it is. Since conception, she has become the primal “other,” the outer pole of our existence, the first world we engage with. Our lives are the histories of the engagements that follow.

6. Trial and error. Every new life is an experiment to see what is effective and what not within the particular niche we occupy by means of our perceptions and actions. No one else shares those exact perspectival coordinates; we are in this life to discover how far we can travel via this singular point of being. On our deathbeds we realize our journey is done; the next leg is up to those who survive us via their own points of being. The experiment never comes to an end; it is what we share with all others of our kind to see if we can’t figure out what will work to keep us going, and what won’t. We have only our passionate beliefs to go by, there are no universal directions, guidebooks, gurus, recipes, magic potions to help us. We are condemned to a life of learning by doing and believing, hoping our subjective awareness will prove sufficient to the task. Through our parents, the universe hands us our bodily makeup and says, “See what you can do with this.” The rest is up to us.

7. Memory. Memory is the backbone of consciousness. Strong emotion and frequent repetition build stable connections within neural networks shaped by personal experience. Connections that aren’t used don’t persist. Memory gives us hope, dread, expectancy, recognition, sameness, familiarity, and a sense of the future, among other aspects of awareness. Memory allows us to look for more of the same, as well as for what is new, novel, different, and mind-expanding.

Consulting my own experience, I recognize three primary types of memory: 1) Spontaneous (or working) memory is fleeting, typically lasting only a few seconds; 2) autobiographical memory can preserve personal episodes for a lifetime as a result of long-term potentiation; 3) conceptual (or semantic) memory is abstracted from the flow of experience to represent persisting types or categories of sensory patterns as based on repeated presentations within a limited range of similarity, facilitating the convenient labeling of specific impressions as concepts approximating one familiar pattern or another.

8. Inputs to consciousness. Three very different inputs support consciousness: 1) materials delivered by bloodflow to fuel the metabolism of body and brain; 2) energy imparted to sensory organs that kindle impressions to be interpreted in light of prior experience as one’s proprietary awareness; and 3) the life force we inherit with our particular genome, the urge to eat, drink, breathe, laugh or cry, heal, rest, have sex, and keep going against all odds. Ambient energy and adequate nutrition are basic substrates of consciousness; reducing availability of either one results in mental impairment and degradation. Consciousness itself flows from the life force, the need to engage, to know what’s happening, to make meaning, to plan and then act, and then to discover what happens next. We call this yearning to engage “soul” or “spirit,” but it doesn’t belong to us as individuals. Rather, it is the endowment we receive by being born as organic beings to an energy-rich planet that gives us a toehold in the universe.

9. Levels of consciousness. Within the brain, two basic routes are available for passage from sensory impressions to appropriate actions: the first is a direct and unconscious route of reflex-mimicry-habit-routine-custom-belief that prompts immediate action on appearance of particular sensory cues; the second is a longer and slower route of conscious consideration that entails reflection, judgment, and decision in arriving at a plan of action situated in subjective life experience. Both impulsivity and consideration are available to us in every situation. We choose between them on the basis of our self-awareness as actors in a world largely of our own making. If we size-up our situation incorrectly, that is our call and our error. If we want to be sure of doing the right thing, we must examine the situation carefully to increase the probability that what we do is appropriate to the specific set of circumstances we are in. I refer to these two options as being on different mental levels, the unconscious and the conscious, what I have elsewhere referred to as the high road and low road.

10. Animal consciousness. Other kinds of consciousness become apparent from observation of animal behavior. In many species, individuals are apt to be differentially affected by sensory stimulation (depending on genetic, dietary, experiential, physical, developmental, and social variables, among others), and to exhibit idiosyncratic behaviors as a result. Speaking more generally, different species live in different sensory worlds, and appear to be conscious in a variety of ways. Humans lack the lateral-line receptors of fish that detect the relative motion of water against the two sides of their bodies, allowing them to orient themselves in a current, and to detect unmoving objects at a distance. We don’t have the hearing sensitivity of bats, scenting ability of dogs, sensitivity to heat of pit vipers, directional hearing of deer, scanning ability of electric fishes, magnetic sensibility of eels, sharks, and birds. We may be fellow creatures, but our respective sensibilities situate us in very different niches in parallel worlds of consciousness on the planet we share.

11. Comparison. Change, difference, motion, and comparison are other basic principles underlying consciousness. Memory not only allows us to categorize sensory patterns, but also to notice what has changed or is different in respect to their former makeup or to a set standard pattern. Comparison of neural signals in, say, adjacent or reciprocating cortical columns creates a sense of relationship (depth perception, symmetry, consonance, dissonance, extension, expansion, proportion, opposition, elaboration, and so on) in consciousness. I view comparison between current and prior impressions as firing up consciousness itself in proportion to the disparity detected. If nothing has changed, there’s no need to pay attention and we can get by on habit and routine. But if changes are noted, are they for better or worse? We spend much of our mental energy evaluating implications of situations that change and develop.

This suggests to me that consciousness is a form of memory, or, more accurately, a way of remembering in a current situation so that past and present impressions are compared, and any disparity directs attention to discover what if anything can be told by the difference. And, further, how such a difference might bear on our behavior. In other words, discrepancy is viewed within a framework of subjective meaning, enabling evaluation of what difference it makes.

12. Meaning. Each individual stream of consciousness is unique and available to only one specific animal or person. In that sense, each conscious being has a proprietary interest in its ongoing experience within its experiential niche, and is personally responsible for actions based on that experience. Meaning is another fundamental principle of consciousness, evaluating the new in reference to the expected or commonplace. Each of us survives on the strength of how well we interpret the flow of energy through our sensory portals in light of our prior experience. The meaning of a sensory pattern is not conveyed by the pattern itself but by how we subjectively construe it. It is invented on the spot, not given by others. Meaning is a product of assimilating sensory impressions to the existing order of subjective understanding, or if that doesn’t work, of expanding that order in such a way to accommodate novel impressions.

13. Time and space. Comparisons resulting from our ways of believing and remembering lead to detection of discrepancies, which are changes since we last looked (listened, touched, tasted, sniffed). Perceptual changes noted by a passive observer (as when sitting still listening to music) are changes in time; by a moving observer (riding along in a car or bus) are changes in space; by an active and moving observer (dancing, climbing a tree, bushwhacking through woods), changes in space-time. Time and space aren’t out there coursing through the universe, they are in us as a sense of calibrated change. Our culture provides the calibration; we provide the awareness of detecting and enacting change. When the cultural calibrators die off, only change will remain, and when individual memory dies, awareness of change itself will wink out.

14. Phenomena. The aim and purpose of consciousness is to achieve behaviors appropriate to one’s actual situation in a world that cannot be known in itself—a logically impossible task, but one we attempt at every waking moment. Mind is an emergent property of the brain, but the workings of the brain in terms of the electro-chemical traffic flow through idiosyncratic neural networks are very different from the workings of the world outside our bodies, so sensory impressions are not simply representations of the world but point-for-point creative renditions in what amounts to a singular universe within consciousness. In practice if not in convincement, we all are dedicated phenomenologist because phenomena (appearances, impressions) as rendered by our sensory apparatus are what we have to go on, not things in themselves. Since each being is unique, its stream of consciousness is unique, and the world it construes for itself is unique—its actual situation being a matter of conjecture and imagination based on the evidence of its senses in light of its situated understanding.

15. Dreams. Dreams and reveries are variations of consciousness in which we are shut off from the world of conventional action and stimulation, but can nonetheless simulate sensory impressions courtesy of random eye movements and fixations that activate neural pathways to stir up fleeting images from memory as if we were fully awake. Our dreamselves cannot engage, for they can neither perceive nor act, so we must make do with memory, letting our dreams themselves illuminate the journey of the self we are, without being situated other than in our personal histories. As potential perceiver and potential actor, the dreamself is at the core of the waking self. We do well to pay close attention to our dreams as informants about the history of our core selves all the way back to infancy when, indeed, our deeds and impressions lie ahead of us. This latent, so-called theory of consciousness is the narrative told to me in my dream-like reflections, and I am sharing with you as a gesture of neighborliness.

16. Introspection. Science, I think, traditionally underplays the value of introspection as a message from the interior of one person. The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria. The arts, on the other hand, along with the humanities, diverse human cultures, sports, business, and military engagements, and other factual or fictional endeavors celebrate individual differences, and play them up as valuable in themselves for distinguishing us one from another in admirable ways. If we were all the same, we would be zombies, and life would progress from dull to duller to dullest. Any unique being cannot be a zombie because one-of-a-kind zombies are oxymorons, contradictions unto themselves. Zombies have surrendered whatever it is that makes them individually distinct. In a world composed of unique individuals, insisting on consensual agreement on the nature of individuality and uniform behavior is a forlorn hope dependent on excessive abstraction and generalization.

17. A tale of two selves. The upshot of this narrative is that we are heavily invested in our subjective consciousness as the lived edition of our personal survival—that tale of two centers—subjective and virtual—facing off against each other at opposite poles of our engagements, separated by the membrane that serves as our skin. This is a tale of two selves, for the virtual world we imagine is largely fleshed out by our own experience as we remember it, so is an extension of our situated perspective as a kind of alter ego accompanying and complementing us in our experiment to see if we can’t get some things, at least, right. Which we all manage to do as demonstrated by our ever spiraling engagement in the streaming adventure of mental life, giving others the impression we are present and accounted-for. To those others, we serve as the virtual poles complementing their subjective selves as situated in the shadows of their own impressions, dreams, life force, and actions.

That’s it for now. Hang in there, and focus on your issues, not the world’s (which are too much for any of us). –Steve

 

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.     [Including 7 photos.]

The question is, who controls our primary engagements? Do we defer to the customs of our social world and lend (or give away) our power of self-determination to those who are stronger than we are? Or do we keep a tight grip on the helm and steer our own course? Probably a mixture of the two, sharing power when it is to our advantage, and holding it tight when we are sure of the direction we want to head.

We get good at what we actually do over-and-over again, so we develop our engagement skills incrementally, improving them bit by bit through deliberate concentration, attention to detail, practice, and perseverance. It is one thing to attend to our strengths, relying on what we do best in almost every situation. That way we are apt to typecast ourselves in order to bull our way through. It is something else again to admit to weaknesses or a lack of finesse in many of our engagements, and face into (rather than ignore) them as integral parts of our personal identity.

No one excels at every sort of engagement. Quarterbacks are good at what they do best, but are likely to fall short as concert pianists, fashion designers, or aestheticians—which causes them no pain whatsoever. But when they lose the strength, speed, and stamina of youth, they have to face up to some of the less-well developed parts or dimensions of their makeup in deciding what to do for the rest of their lives.

Me, I’m a visual person. I make photographic images. Others are musicians, dancers, mathematicians, holy men or women, dog trainers, philosophers. We are all situated in the lives we live and have lived, but each of us comes with a unique set of baggage. We are fraught (freighted, loaded, burdened) with our histories because those histories are lodged in networks in our brains where they broadcast bulletins from our memories of where we have been and what we have done. Each of us is a unique, situated self. We make ourselves happen according to the dictates of who we are. I do it my way, you do it your way. Taken all together, we make up the world of humanity. Which reflects our strengths and weaknesses without flinching. We are, after all, who we are.

Yet we are bombarded by messages telling us to do this or do that because it would suit someone else’s desires. Vote for V; Buy W; Support X; Give to Y; Avoid Z at all cost. Pleas which I generally ignore as having no impact on my personal situation. I am in charge here, I keep telling myself, I’ll do the deciding. When I have no choices worthy of consideration, I pull back and, from the world’s perspective, go into hiding. But, no, I’m not hiding, I’m consulting myself—my memories, my dreams, my values, my feelings—my life situation—in deciding what to do.

After all, if I don’t steer my own engagements, who am I engaging for? Or more importantly, why am I here if not to be wholly myself? If I’m not myself, who am I, then?

I’ll tell you who I am, at least for this minute, today. I’ve been turning over everything in my apartment, looking for a receipt for a flight I made from Hancock County Airport back in June. Books are being audited, and I’m accountable for that invoice. I’ve looked at every scrap of paper in the place, cluttering the floor and my table with useless bits of paper, the residue of living my life over the course of several months. Ransacking my personal space, without success. One aspect of my situation just now is that I live amid clutter, which I confront in just lifting my eyes from the cursor on my computer screen.

Another aspect is I’m trying to learn not to get angry and take my frustrations out on others who I convert into victims in order to defend myself from blame. When I can’t engage a project as I wish, I sometimes get exasperated and blow up, throw a tantrum, rant and rage—instead of calmly saying, “Houston, we have a problem,” then going about fixing that particular problem. “Take no hostages” may be good advice, but not if it means abusing those around me. Better, I try to treat everyone with kindness and respect, and ask them for help in dealing with the upsetting situations I frequently get myself into. As I asked the clerk when I found my post office box so stuffed with papers, letters, catalogues, magazines, that I had no choice but to rip great gashes in them in pulling them out of the box past the hinges of the open door. I waited in line at the desk, wondering how I could put it so the clerk could hear me. “I’m going to tell you something you already know,” I would begin, “but when my mailbox is stuffed, I can’t get at my mail without shredding it,” would that work? When I got the clerk’s attention, that’s basically what I said. And we ended up laughing together at the image of me tugging on my mail, turning it into sauerkraut, steam gushing from my eye sockets. The essential thing is that he got the message.

A big part of my situation is missing my sons when I don’t see them for long periods of time. That’s part of the background of much of my life these days, that longing for something I can’t have. So this week I was overjoyed to have Jesse come from Boston to celebrate my birthday with my other son Ken at his house. That and my 80th birthday are a big part of my situation this week.

Last evening I watched the first presidential debate of this year’s campaign, and was dismayed to hear Mitt Romney try to shape the discussion according to hollow claims about how many jobs he’d create and not by his record of actual deeds. He seemed to be making his words up on the spot to suit the situation he was in (a high-stakes debate on TV) more than on what he had actually accomplished in his life. But that’s how it is with challengers to incumbents. Incumbents have a record of what they have done during four years in office; challengers run in opposition to that record, so they’ll say anything to paint it as a failure. Obama and Romney seem to be in the same race, but they are speaking from two very different situations, so their strategies truly reflect that disparity. What struck me from the perspective of a voter was the difference between a retelling of history and an imaginative prophecy of the future. I had to read between the lines to hear what each candidate was trying to say from the depths of his personal situation.

When listening to a political speech, ask yourself what is the situation the candidate is facing, and what the strategy he or she has adopted in speaking out of that situation, so accounting for the specific flow of words you are hearing. One thing is clear: candidates for political office speak from very different situations before election campaigns, during party primary races, and again during face-offs between parties, only to end up either winning or losing the campaign, leading to two additional situations—those of the officeholder and the also-ran.

All candidates change their tunes as they progress through the phases of the campaign because they are addressing entirely different constituencies at each stage, each posing a different situation than those addressed before. In their political lives both Obama and Romney have used different voices representing the different placements of their minds at each stage. The ultimate shocker is the voice that rises upon assuming the Presidency, the stern voice issuing from the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., the ultimate locus of power, and the most rigidly constrained by the complex, overlapping situations the President must deal with.

In presidential debate number one, President Obama was shocked because his opponent spoke with a different voice than any he had used up to that day. But that was because the campaign had entered the final stretch, placing each candidate in a different situation, the incumbent playing up his record of accomplishment, his opponent trashing that record while playing up what he hoped to do once he himself assumed office, leaving his personal record of deeds out of the picture entirely.

But getting back to minor details of my current, personal situation, a nagging dimension of my situation at this minute is the rash I get from something in my gluten-free diet I have been unable to identify. No, it isn’t from chocolate made in a dedicated, allergen-free facility, which I have lately tried and given up on. Maybe it’s the salicylates in green leafy vegetables, which I believe would be good for me if I could eat them, but which seem to bring on the rash. Anyway, the rash brings an undercurrent of annoyance and distraction to my situation, which leaves me somewhat dazed and frazzled when it gets really bad.

And so on. That is a fast sketch of my situated self as I sit here trying to write a coherent post on that very topic to my blog. Situations are complicated because at any given moment they tend to be composed of unrelated dimensions which make life more complicated than I’d like it to be—but nothing turns out to be simple. A lot is going on in the network of a hundred billion neurons that host our dreams, thoughts, feelings, values, and perspectives. Each instant of life is more a maze than a tableau, which may change with the next thought and the one after that.

Here are seven images of how I depict my situated self in graphic terms. 1) The first is me having my picture taken with my two sons, Jesse and Ken, at the birthday dinner they gave me this week. The photographer (my partner, Carole) structured the situation by saying, “Use your hands.” We dutifully responded, with this result (below).

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2) The schematic diagrams in the next five slides build to a depiction of a loop of engagement centered on the yellow circle representing the situated self at the heart of all consciousness. The blue circle represents sensory impressions, the yellow circle represents personal situations, the pink circle represents bodily actions, each circle answering a pointed question relative to the situated self (below).

SituatedSelf-1

3) This second diagram depicts the loop of engagement connecting the situated self with both the natural and cultural worlds through an exchange of energy directed outward through bodily actions and inward through sensory impressions in an unbroken cycle through both external physical and internal neural media of transmission (below).

SituatedSelf-24) Formation of sensory impressions (blue circle) requires arousal, directed attention, and expectancy within a given situation, at a given level of sensory discrimination or discernment, leading to recognition if a given pattern is found familiar, and to fear or curiosity if thought strange or novel. Development of personal situations (yellow circle) entails creative imagination, thought, feelings, values, understanding, and dreams—all centered on the situated self or observer.  On the basis of personal judgment, the situated self makes a bodily response (pink circle) to a situation as construed in the light of personal experience, deciding how best to proceed, setting goals, selecting means, relying on relationships, working on projects, then acting appropriately to answer the tensions posed by the operative situation (below).

SituatedSelf-3 5) It comes as no surprise that consciousness flows from looping cycles of behavior and perception, which is entirely consistent with other organic exchanges such as those conducted by the digestive system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, pulmonary system, and integumentary (skin) system as listed in the lower right corner of the gray rectangle representing the embodied or incarnated brain. Proprioception (sense of the body in space) and interoception (internal sensations such as feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, aches, pains, etc.) both contribute to the makeup of the situated self. The dotted arrow on the left indicates that speech arises directly and efficiently from the self-as-situated without requiring the detailed planning and rehearsal of more fully developed behaviors (below).SituatedSelf-46) Bypassing the fully conscious, situated self, reflex arcs are loops connecting sensory input directly to behavioral output without having to pass through the complex realm of full consciousness where the many dimensions might slow them down. This is also true of rote or habitual routines and ideologies expressing the foregone conclusions of trained or set minds. In these cases, the situation is more intuited or assumed than explored, allowing for an immediate response. The comparison of current patterns of experience against those derived from the past is what drives the loop forward. Memory, then, is here represented in a central position turning momentary patterns into life experiences in the history of the situated self (below).

SituatedSelf-5Every mind, that is, comes equipped with a variety of options for connecting sensory impressions to the motor system generating more-or-less appropriate behavior. We are all capable of being impulsive as well as thoughtful or considerate. Practice and rehearsal assure gradual refinement of slow and awkward responses into fluent and modulated expressions of deep concern. In my own cluttered life, I often discover moments of great beauty coming upon me for a few seconds amid the chaos and confusion I generally endure. Walking to the post office this week, I saw a monarch butterfly land on a cluster of purple asters next to the sidewalk. Instantly, I was there with that butterfly and those flowers. Short-lived though it may be, that is also part of the situation out of which I make myself happen this week. What could I do but whip my camera from its case on my belt and take this picture (below).

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It is sometimes difficult to believe how elaborate the situations are that we develop on the basis of sensory impressions twisted into bizarre shapes—largely our own doing by way of selecting and emphasizing the patterns that our senses make available to us. Since we have no meaning detector, the significance of a pattern is our own addition to the mix. We can scrutinize that pattern, but the meaning we lay upon it is strictly ours through our ability to compare new patterns with others recalled from former occasions, the earlier situations serving as our hold on the new, giving it meaning. So the meaningful world is the understanding we lay on the patterns revealed by our senses. Which is why two people side-by-side can live in such different perceptual worlds—each tailoring it to his or her own needs, fears, and desires. The black newspaper reporter holding a microphone up to his interviewee by the side of the road on Cape Cod was seen by passing motorists as holding a knife at his throat. Same pattern, different meanings. We are captives of the situations we fashion for ourselves.

Which is why I am spending all this time and effort writing about consciousness—to help calm my desperate illusions for one thing, to see how corporations and institutions are putting so much energy into capturing our (my and your) minds for their benefit for another, and so on, in hopes you and I will remain sane, set adrift as we are in this riled and riling world.

If we don’t seek therapy to help us endure, we can help heal ourselves by looking inward to discover where we’re coming from in a given situation, so better to understand the world by understanding ourselves through deliberate acts of self-reflection or introspection. If we feel trapped in our lives and yearn to break free, the same approach applies. The traps often turn out to be self-traps that bear our own patents and trademarks. If we can advance our understanding of ourselves as unique individuals, that is a solid contribution to the human world coming to understand itself, no mean accomplishment. Engaging ourselves, we improve our engagements with our immediate world, so contributing to the larger world beyond.

On that note, I now plan to explore other ways of presenting these views shaped through self-reflection in hopes of engaging a wider audience. Recently, I’ve made this blog my primary workspace, but now feel ready—and even obliged—to reach beyond myself to interact with more than the eighty or a hundred people who follow these posts. At age eighty, I find my life situation is rapidly changing, and I am trying to keep up with my situated self.

So, yes, I’ll be letting go of this blog in turning to other ways of being myself, returning now and then to share moments of beauty or discovery such as that monarch landing on those asters. I hope you will stay well, curious, and active.

In the meantime, I remain y’r devoted friend, –Steve from this one and only Planet Earth

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.       [Including 16 photos.]

Where do Mitt Romney’s non-taxpaying moochers go on vacation? I don’t know about the others, but this September I allowed myself three days to explore Campobello Island in New Brunswick off Lubec, Maine, where I wanted to do some serious mooching. By mooching I mean engaging my surroundings with my eyes and my camera, checking on the situations I am apt to get myself into so I can make a fitting response to what’s going on in my world. My partner was ready to take a break, too, so we drove together through Washington County and over the international bridge between Lubec and Campobello, to the island where F.D.R. took vacations long ago before he got polio.

We spent three days in Herring Cove Provincial Park and Roosevelt International Park, as beautiful an area as I have ever been in. Since this was our only vacation all year, we had some heavy mooching to do if it was going to have to last us for twelve months. I took the makings of three breakfasts and three lunches, she provided three dinners. We tented out in Herring Cove Campground, and did little but explore the whole time.

Since I feel obligated to submit a report to Mr. Romney to justify my existence for those three days—on the off-chance he might approve of how I occupied myself—I offer this accounting of how I used my time. We arrived just at dusk, so set up the tent in a hurry, avoiding low ground where rainwater would collect, and then ate a quick dinner. That was Friday night. The forecast for Saturday was wind and rain by early afternoon, so we started out early in the morning by visiting the beach at Cranberry Point. Yes, there was the Lubec Channel Light, just as the brochure said it would be—looking every bit the giant sparkplug they said it resembled. Carole, that’s my partner, suffered from stomach distress, so lay on the shore with a smooth beach stone in each hand to heal herself. And I walked up and down the beach, photographing the Duck Islands, the waves, clouds on the horizon, a painted lady butterfly, the lighthouse, and West Quoddy Light across the channel in the U.S. of A.

When it started to rain, we visited the Roosevelt International Park visitor center, and spent a couple of hours refreshing our memories of F.D.R.s life and presidency. They had fifteen of his notable speeches piped into a cathedral-style table radio, so it was like old times, reminding me of December 7, 1941, when I first heard of the Japanese stealth bombing of Pearl Harbor. If it hadn’t been for F.D.R., I wouldn’t be the moocher I am today, so I had no difficulty paying my respects to his memory.

When the rain let up, we headed for the northern end of the island to visit East Quoddy Light, which a woman walking her dog told us might be turned into guest accommodations. An adult bald eagle was riling up the gulls on the rocks, looking like he (a tercel one-third smaller than a female) was determined to eat one for dinner. He landed on top of a nearby spruce and balanced himself in the wind by much flapping of wings, then dove off and made a fly-by of where we were standing. I got several photos of that foray, before he settled down on the rocks and just sat there eying the gulls, who mercilessly harassed him by diving at his neck from behind.

You get the idea of how I go about mooching by following my nose to whatever looks interesting. I took 355 photos in three days, and the day I got back, made a 106-slide PowerPoint summary of my brief Canadian engagement, a sample of which I include in this blog. That’s the best way of letting Mr. Romney and the rest of the world know what I was doing by actually posting the evidence of my nonstop engagement with birds, flowers, butterflies, stones, beach art, and my partner Carole. That’s how I justify my existence when somebody challenges me, by showing them what I’m up to.

Whether you’re ready or not, here come the photos: 1) The Duck Islands, 2) Herring Cove with storm clouds, 3) shiny black stone on the beach, 4) the eastern horizon (I’m fascinated by that limit to my existence), 5) a bunch of pebbles, 6) more pebbles, 7) sandpiper on Raccoon Beach, 8) two urchins in sea wrack, 9) a new-hatched monarch butterfly, 10) cliff at the end of Herring Cove, 11) folk art made of the rubber bands lobstermen use to bind lobster claws, 12) a spiral engraved in the sand of Herring Cove with a stick, 13) a totem made by piling up beach stones, and 14-16) constructions such as people leave behind when visiting Raccoon Cove on Campobello Island.

The first ten photos are products my actions in engaging the island, the last six are products of other people’s engagements, left behind for posterity to appreciate, then to succumb to the natural forces ruling all engagements on the island.

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That’s the kind of thing I engage with when I and my partner go on vacation. It’s pretty close to my life’s work, engaging the landscapes through which I pass as I go. I see myself as living a life of civility and respect for the wonders of this Earth. At least I don’t make pornographic films, weapons of mass destruction, or money based on bilking others of their life’s savings. I do as little damage as I can, and above all, take responsibility for the workings of my mind because, after all, it’s my mind, and I’m the only one with access to it. My mind directs my behavior, and my behavior affects other people, so I try to set up an exchange of civility as I walk the way of my life.

Oh, yes, this is my 329th post to my blog on consciousness, my effort to understand my personal brand of absurdity so that I can fulfill that last promise to live on peaceful terms with my neighbors by conducting myself as decently, courteously, and respectfully as I can because I know that no one has it easy, and a ruckus from my direction is the last thing anyone needs. Not that I haven’t caused trouble in the past, but I’m getting better by knowing myself up-close and personal, as they used to say on TV, which I know because I was there watching it as recently as twenty-five years ago.

That’s my mooching report for this week. Pretty bland, I would say—especially when compared to the trouble a lot of workers cause by fighting needless wars of aggression, wringing other people’s money out of the economy, keeping people locked up in detention and solitary confinement, shipping jobs overseas, and generally causing mayhem the way politicians and corporate executives like to do to keep folks stirred up and out of sorts so they’ll consume more than they need just to keep the money flowing to the coffers of the well-off and famous.  

Between mooches I work with an estuary and its watershed to keep it in good shape for coming generations, and hang out with remnants of the Occupy Movement in Maine, trying to convert to an assembly for promoting civil exchanges within the local community as opposed to monetary exchanges—as if sports and the economy are all we have to talk about when people get together. How about learning from and about one another, since each one of us is unique and largely unknown to anyone else?

Submitted with humility and sincerity, –Steve of Planet Earth

Reflection 328: Pandemic

October 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

When overwhelmed by the wackiness of today’s “civilized” world, I often view my own consciousness as a theater of the absurd. What I see is one crank after another bantering about his eccentric view of the world being the one and only view that everyone else should take as a revelation of true reality. Tyrants do it, political leaders do it, holy men do it, as do newscasters, pundits, businessmen, bankers, economists, entertainers, making it seem that a tsunami of craziness has swept over us in the night, engulfing us in a flood of absurdity.

My defense against this flood is to look upon today’s reality as a kind of dream where the conventional social order is overturned in a wild Saturnalia of anything goes. If it can be thought, it will be thought by someone, somewhere. If it can be said, ditto. If it can be done, double ditto. Which is much like many of my nightmares, and creates a sense of frustration similar to how I, powerless in my sleep, react to those dreams.

Except the current pandemic of self-seeking wackiness is no dream. It is the most brutish kind of reality where every man squares off against all others for himself alone to see what he can get by forcing his burden of craziness on the rest of us.

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has assigned the status of personhood to corporations, thereby granting the right of free speech and free spending of money to for-profit entities out to make a killing from the rest of us mere mortals by transferring our personal wealth to their coffers as quickly as possible. That is no way to run a world, and since there’s only one world based on potential consciousness, that is no way to run this world, the one we’ve been born to.

I dream of the possibility of a world based on decency, courtesy, and respect—a world where citizens are civil one to another, and do not base their engagements solely on power and money, that is, on what they can get from others and from the Earth.

Our current passion for competition comes from a false reading of Darwin’s message. We are one human family among our fellow plants and animals, without whom we would not be here. We are not the top dog, the essential nation, the leader of all tribes. Above all, we are not “man-the-wise.” Whatever happened to empathy and humility? Where did we go wrong in selling our souls for (temporary) personal advantage?

We are a primate species, born of a long line of expert tree climbers and leapers, come down to earth, now risen up on two legs and looking for trouble, which we seem to thrive on. Yet we are all mortal beings, heading for certain illness and death, born of woman, conceived by a man and a woman, who were both conceived by male and female going back to the beginning of primate life. The lady in France who said (in French) “I am not a mammal” had it backwards. Because she worked for a company that made baby formula, she imagined herself as a superior being independent of her animal roots. In deep denial, she was being absurd. It is that fatuous quality that now defines us and sets us against who we truly are.

This year’s Republican presidential primary race pitted one candidate against all others, each making preposterous statements based on his or her personal life experience as if it was the basis of universal law. Personal conceit (which I see as a form of ignorance) mixed with a hunger for money ignites the absurdity I see all around us. A pandemic of absurdity, where no one has his feet on the ground but is issuing nonsense out of his mouth as if it came from the Delphic Oracle—from the Priestess herself. Or from Fox News, the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, some infallible Pope or Ayatollah—from ideologues to the Tenth Degree.

We have become the laughing stock of all species, or would be if we didn’t wreak so much waste, havoc, chaos, and misery in our wake. This is what the 13-billion-year history of the universe has brought us to? This has been our destiny all along?

Don’t you believe it! This current pandemic of absurdity is an anomaly, a product of personal avarice and lust for power, a temporary state of affairs brought on by a lapse of judgment in choosing our way in the world based on how we wish to engage one another, seeing others as dupes and fools, not our equals, not our Earthly brothers and sisters.

We are suffering through a breakdown in human engagement, a parody of personal virtue gone musty and rotten. We are using one another as personal property to be used, gutted, and discarded. This is the new slavery, the purchase and abuse of those thought to be lesser beings because of their relative poverty and weakness. Imagine the bundling of mortgages imposed on people who cannot afford the homes they buy because that intentionally unbearable debt adds up to big money to be claimed by those who see the total amount but not the people who owe it as if it were only money, not bundled human lives.

Where, oh where is civility? We are not here to be at our neighbors’ throats, or to do our worst, not our best. We are at the forefront of the history of the universe, ready to engage those who have come with us on the basis of our equality as living beings, not as dispensable victims. If I did not believe in civility, I would be embarrassed to be an American. Instead, I think we have only lost our way because of the worm of self-serving power and profit that has bored into our heads—and we can be healed and set right again in a New Age based on civil engagements that encourage decency, courtesy, and respect.

As it is, we are allowing ourselves and the Earth to be sold short of what we are truly worth—the only seat of consciousness that we have yet discovered—or are ever likely to discover—in the universe. If we keep on as we are going, where will we find the worthy examples to lead us back to our senses? Civility is fragile, the product of eons of collective respect, striving, and cooperation. Are we going to sit by and watch it be taken from us by a vain and wealthy elite that wants to run the world solely on its own terms? We deserve a better fate than that.

As I see it, the only alternative is for us to achieve the civility I am talking about by building it into the heart of our own lives and engagements, thereby refusing to go meekly along with the self-appointed elite, who are really the most forlorn, desperate, and pitiable caricatures of what humanity can be. What choice do we have but to remain staunchly ourselves?

Respectfully, y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 327: Dream Talk

October 3, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Where do words come from? We talk from the situation we are currently in—which shapes the vocabulary and syntax of the moment. And situations are the chief characteristics, not only of our wakeful moments, but also of our dreams. So when we part our lips to make sound gestures with minimum effort, in a sense we are speaking out of our dreams. Day dreams and night dreams—they are structured the same; it’s just that in one we can act and perceive, in the other we can’t.

Reveries (what we call daydreams) are a transitional stage of awareness in which we enter a kind of waking trance, neither perceiving nor moving while engaged entirely with our own thoughts. I remember watching a teacher of aesthetics stand apparently looking out the window for five minutes, but truly lost in his own thoughts, ignoring the class he was supposedly teaching. Then he snapped to, and out of the blue informed the class that he could go on indefinitely comparing and contrasting a cigarette with a piece of chalk. Was that what had held his attention for five minutes, that profound revelation? But here I am using that example thirty-two years later, so perhaps I learned something from his trance after all. He was dreaming, but was not asleep. I didn’t think in terms of situations at the time, but now I appreciate his distraction as an example of precisely what I am talking about in this post. My teacher was firmly situated in his thoughts, memories, and feelings, even though none of his students had an inkling what was on his mind until he spoke afterwards.

Situations are highly structured on three levels, the sensory, conceptual, and affective. The sensory level is based on impressions derived from ambient energy impinging on our receptive organs, more-or-less modified to emphasize qualities we recognize as being familiar because we have met them before. The conceptual level is draped over the sensory level by the meanings we assign to its various qualities, creating the illusion of sensory qualities and images being meaningful in themselves, even though they are fraught with our personal life experience. The affective level of a situation conveys how we feel about it in terms of our wellbeing at the time (generally expressed by such sounds as either “mMMm” or “yugk!”). If it promotes our subjective wellbeing we regard the situation in a positive light; if it degrades our wellbeing, we take it negatively. Either way, that affect spurs our engagement. If neither positive nor negative, we take a wait-and-see attitude and regard it as neutral.

Words, I now believe, flow from situations as we have put them together in our own minds by layering feelings onto meanings onto significant patterns of energy as translated into nerve impulses by our receptive sensory organs. It is the flow of those impulses through neural networks in our brains that generates what we experience as our unique conscious mind. Words are labels we have learned to put on recognizable arrangements of signals in our neural networks. The store of such labels we have available to us originated and developed in the linguistic culture we grew up in, but through selective use over many years we have adopted a personal lexicon from that store to be applied as serving a useful purpose in particular life situations.

We can assign various speech roles to different aspects of a particular situation. What we are attentive to serves as the subject of our thought on one or more of the three levels of situational structure—sensory, conceptual, affective—whichever combination is particularly salient or notable in our minds at the time. We use a verb to relate that subject to a particular object of significance, singling out the relationship between the two as worthy of notice and emphasis. We can qualify subject, verb, or object by inserting modifiers as suit our purposes on a particular occasion. And so on, the situation as we have constructed it in our minds serving as the deep structure giving rise to a particular utterance within a given occasion of special interest.

My situation right now is governed by my striving to put into words feelings and relationships I experience within myself in response to the question “Where do words come from?” with which I opened this post. It is something I feel and see within my mind more than something I know or have learned. I am in a situation of discovery more than of reliance on agreed-upon facts. There are no facts of life, only processes and events. I see dreams in my mind as represented by a horizontal squiggle cut off from the possibility of extension—of sensory input on one side or of physical action on the other. The dream is isolated between those two impossibilities, unable to act or be acted upon. 

Immediately above that dream line I see another squiggle representing a state of wakefulness with sensory reception and motor action restored as possibilities connected to my dream—now my waking—situation. Those revived connections on either side of my former dream situation make all the difference between being free and being trapped in my own mind. Free to receive sensory stimulation, free to act on the situation as I have constructed it from my mental raw materials. Open to the world on both sides, that now is the freedom of personal engagement with a world of my own choosing to which wakefulness invites me: freedom to write or speak, freedom to read or listen.

Between the upper and lower squiggles as I imagine them, my situated mind stays much the same. It’s just that all sorts of enticements, checks, and balances exist on the upper one to lessen my isolation so that I feel included as a member of the world at large, not confined to my own mental cell. The urge to speak takes on new meaning in the presence of possible hearers (or in this case, readers). In thinking, there’s only me, so I can easily get lost without anyone hailing me back. In acting on both the urges to speak and to listen, I discover that my felt situation corresponds to a world inhabited by others similar to myself with whom it is possible for me to freely interact. That, now, opens me to a new world of possibility for social engagement.

What an awkward way to talk about an experience that many people enjoy on an intimate level through personal engagement with others! We just open our mouths and words pour out, cock our ears and words pour in. Why make it sound so difficult?

But it wasn’t easy in the beginning when we first learned to talk, and spent many years expanding our vocabularies and understanding. That was hard work. And perhaps the most important work of our lives in learning to engage effectively with other unique people different from ourselves. On that extended stage, a great many things can go wrong so that our engagements get muddled, our situations made more difficult to figure out.

I will speak personally. My father’s mother died the day after giving birth to her only child. Who was to hold him? To nurse him? To instruct him by example in the ways of possible engagement? Of mimicking, of responding, of taking initiative, of smiling and cooing back? For whatever reason, many a child has wandered off at that vulnerable age and never had the privilege of experiencing the primal situations leading to exactly what I am talking about in this post because that situation was disrupted in his or her case, and s/he had to be rescued or else lost to the world. Think infants in orphanages receiving minimal care, surviving, but rarely engaging, barely being taught to engage. Living in a gray fog of neglect as a primal life situation. Think abandoned children, abused children, neglected children.

As I understand it, when an infant, my father was nursed for a time by another woman in town, and within a couple of years his father married his dead wife’s best friend, a widow with three children of her own, so domestic stability was somewhat preserved. He was lucky—and I and my two brothers are lucky. But even so. Even so, I wrote in 1973,

Laura Gale Perrin died the day after giving birth to her son, my father. He never knew her, his mother. I never knew him, my father. Will my sons ever know me? [The original of these lines appeared in a grid of eleven lines of eleven letters each (without spaces or punctuation), producing a cryptic 121-letter grid in Elite type meant to hold tight to the substance of what it was trying to say.]

I see a progression here from dream to waking situations, and then from from felt to expressed situations. So does the self learn to know itself in stages by reaching deep into the unknown to grasp what then becomes known. My inheritance has been an acute case of New England reserve that perversely whets my passion to recognize and unreservedly understand my own mind, in the process becoming the adult parent of myself.

So by facing into the dream and waking situations behind our speech do we become our own woman or man, mature individuals bent on improving upon the world to which we were born. Where do words come from but our efforts to surpass ourselves in giving voice to the situations we create as expressions of our own minds?

It takes a village to raise one child because no single exemplar can do the job. We need many models to learn how best to present and conduct ourselves in the countless situations we get into in the course of living a full life. That is, how to engage as who we are in the act of becoming more than we dream we can be. Self-transcendence is the name of that game, and we’ve been at it every day since birth, no matter how mean our origins, accepting challenges, not limitations—dreams, not so-called realities.

That is an example of what I mean by dream talk. Dipping deep into the well of what life has given us to improve our felt situations day-by-day, and keeping at it, year-by-year. In the process whetting our curiosity and will to surpass ourselves in improving our personal situations, and beyond that—the world of nature and its scion, humanity.

It all begins with a dream of what might be possible, and then giving expression to that dream by acting it out in broad daylight, serving as an example for others desiring to do the same.

Thanks for listening. I invite you to leave a note. As ever, I remain y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 326: Dreamland

October 1, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

When we dream, we can neither act in the world nor receive sensory impressions from that world, so have no ability to engage beyond what we store in memory—lingering feelings, salient experience from the past, a general sense of frustration in being shut out from the world, together with an ability to construct recognizable situations associated with subtle movements of the muscles steering our eyes. And yet to recover our sense of engagement upon waking, all we need is a sufficient jolt of arousal to release our pent-up drive to action and hunger for sensory stimulation. We are the same situated dreamers, now up on two legs and looking about, ready to engage.

Our dreaming and waking self is much the same basic personality under different conditions of arousal. As I wrote in Consciousness: The Book, “To create consciousness, equip our dreamselves with loops of engagement so we become capable of acting and sensing—voila, we recognize our everyday selves” (page 207).

What does not change when we slip into dreamland is our ability to recognize a limited range of familiar situations such as frustration and sexual arousal. In the last paragraph of my book, I make a suggestion stemming from that fact:

I think it important to pay particular attention to your mental state every day upon first awakening, and to the remnants of receding dreams. This will expand your appreciation for the hidden depths of your mind, which are just as much yours as your open-eyed awareness (pages 270-271).

So it is no surprise that I took notice of an opposite view expressed in a short piece by Michael Chabon in the September 27 issue of The New York Review of Books: 

I hate dreams. . . . I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off (“Head or Tale,” page 54).

There, I thought, is a man who is uncomfortable with his own nature, his own hidden depths. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live with so strong a source of built-in discontent. It is not only his own dreams that bother him, but the recounting by  others of their dreams—including members of his own family:

At the breakfast table, in my house, an inflexible law compels all recounting of dreams to be compressed into a sentence or, better still, half a sentence, like the paraphrasings of epic films listed in TV Guide: “Rogue Samurai saves peasant village” (ibid.).

That attitude strikes me as so familiar because people generally hate in others what they cannot deal with in their own lives. Which leads religious and political leaders to take often extreme efforts to clamp down on the freedom of all people to be themselves. How does the refrain run? “If I hate abortions, you can’t have one under any circumstances. If I feel overtaxed, you can’t even mention taxation in my presence. If I am uneasy in the presence of foreigners, they should stay in their homelands and not hound me. Spare me your dreams, I’ll spare you mine.”

These are warped ways of engagement, imposing one’s own sensibilities on everyone else—claiming that one’s personal style should be made universal. The harder a man believes in his personal style of engagement, the more intolerant and unbearable he becomes, the more controlling and authoritarian, the more insistent on orthodoxy based on his egocentric life preferences. His engagements with unique others become geared like a bicycle chain entraining them to his will. The universe is not centered on Earth or the sun, it is centered on me, me, me, me! That is the cry of those who have a private fountain of youth in their depths that assures they stay infantile forever. What a sad story. Sad for all of humanity in thinking one can be conscious for everyone else.

“If art were more like dreams,” Chabon writes, “I might ban it from my breakfast table, too.” On that note, he ends his short piece. Is he trying to be funny or ironic? I am not familiar with his work, and don’t find any figurative clues in this short essay, so take him at face value.  [Wikipedia’s entry on Michael Chabon includes the sentence: His work is characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity.]  We cannot tolerate what we don’t understand because we have not lived it in childhood when our styles of engagement were set spinning. Not just a sad story, a tragic story, with consequences for us all. Such as the mayhem—the cacophony of cries shouted out and enacted on the world stage, human weakness and fallibility masquerading as world truth and god’s will.

How it hurts to write such words. To see the human world implode upon itself because of a set refusal on the part of those who seek power to grow into mature adults. What sane adult would want to have a position of such authority? The general level of maturity is inversely proportional to the square of the human population because more and more children are neglected every day, and so society lacks the depth it requires to teach everyone how to engage with those who are unlike themselves, and so make a shambles of life itself. Truly, it takes a village to raise a child so parents have back-ups when they’re too sick or tired to engage with their own children.

What does it take to want to be president or serve on the judiciary of the United States, Egypt, Serbia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else? It takes a lust for power based on deep felt personal need to control the world because it is such a scary place. To feel that in your bones is to plead the normalcy of your personal fears, needs, desires, and ideal engagements. What I want, every normally intelligent person should want. What’s good for me is good for you, by definition. My definition. Which is the point. Me substituting my will for yours, and calling it a virtue. Putting you in my place—my situation as I see it—and calling that reality.

As we engage, so do we play out our situations in the (supposedly) real world. Shopping, working, making things, fixing dinner, talking, joking, fighting, keeping abreast of the times—all are engagements centered on the situations we are in at the time. Which are very similar to the key situations we find (place) ourselves in in our dreams. Situations, remember, encapsulate the self, his or her outlook or perspective, and the scene or event revealed from that personal point-of-view all in one take on so-called reality. Situations one after another form the loop of engagement along which our daily lives are strung like so much laundry. Life is thus made up of our adventures as seen from the inside. Inside our waking hours; inside our dreams.

I woke up the other day still engaged in my dream, and went about my daily routine as if the dream were continuing, looking upon my intimate world as fantastic, fabulous, bizarre, and strangely wonderful. I had made soup the evening before, and piled bowls, pots, pans, and utensils in the drying rack next to my sink in a mad heap like the dump of discarded parts at a military airbase. I took it all in and accepted responsibility for creating that heap. In the bathroom, I hung my towel—not on the bar where a wet shirt was supposedly drying, but half on an overturned laundry basket, half on a chair while avoiding the pair of pants draped over the back, desperately fitting my need to what little space was available, seeing myself adapt to the chaos and ruin I had wrought by simply living my life the day before. I was partly awake, but my dream state seamlessly continued so that I could appreciate my own engagement as my doing fabricated from whatever situation I found myself in.

Which is where we “come from” all the time, from situations in which we picture ourselves in the act of striving to be glamorous, accomplished, famous, worthy, witty, eloquent, funny, powerful, strong, successful—whatever. We make ourselves happen to fit the situations we create for ourselves. Poor me. Lucky me. Happy me. Neurotic me. Sick me. Sad me. Saintly me. Devilish me. As go our dreams, so goes our day, scene by scene, act after act, one engagement following another. The land of our waking turns out to be an extension of the land of our dreaming, or vice versa. The two are similar because we—our fundamental selves—are one and the same. It’s just that in one state we can engage with the world around us to some degree, in the other we have only our innermost selves to fall back on, our own company to keep in insular privacy.

Landscape as dreamscape, that’s what I’m talking about because that’s what I find by reflection on my own life. Asleep or awake, I’m the same me in two different realms, one where I can engage a shifting world, the other where I have only salient features of my earlier experience, so in a sense am trapped into being who I truly am. If I hate my dreams, as many do—Michael Chabon is but their spokesman—I am in deep trouble, and apt to make it all right by imposing my trouble on those who are not me—which is what writers of “fiction” do for a living.

One afterthought: Horoscopes “work” because they are based on the assumption that the conditions of our beginnings determine our actions ever-after. Which, translated to the influence of the heavens, is a figurative depiction of what really happens. Only, it isn’t the heavens that are all powerful, but our earliest caregivers—parents, not planets, earthly surrogates for those looking down from above.

Enough, already. I’m still y’r brother and friend, enjoying myself immensely, –Steve from Planet Earth.