Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

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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.

 

To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

465. Roget’s Thesaurus

March 24, 2015

It was in 1852 that Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,

classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas

and assist in Literary Composition.

As I view it, that book gives us a portrait of his mind striving to map meanings onto words in English, a task he began early in life to support his own writing, and completed well after his retirement from medical practice in 1840.

In 1805 as a young writer, he first compiled for his own use “a system of verbal classification” that he later believed would be useful to all who take care in selecting words to suit their intended use in particular settings. Throughout his life, Roget kept his mind active in pursuit of a wide range of interests. The Thesaurus is but one of his many accomplishments—the one for which he is cited today, even if its author is only dimly remembered.

I am of two minds regarding Dr. Roget and his Thesaurus. I admire his identifying a thousand categories of meaning in his own mind, and then systematically sorting his personal vocabulary of words and phrases among those headings. As one who takes his own mind seriously, I identify with him in making that effort.

But, too, I feel almost claustrophobic in wending my way along the quaint and weedy pathways he treads among the meanings and feelings he discovered within himself so long ago. His era is not my era, his reverence for Latinate expressions not my reverence, his verbal style not my style.

I cringe at many of the word clusters he amassed from terms he believed to share a core sense of meaning. I find myself silently dusting off and editing his lists, which, fortunately, others have done overtly in updating his now antiquated original to suit the needs of changing times.

But even so, I feel pinched in reading through earlier editions of his Thesaurus as I try to get as close to the man as I can from my remote perspective in the twenty-first century. Mine is a labor of, if not love, then of fellowship with a kindred wayfarer on his then journey through a now forgotten inner life.

Some would claim “we are all one” and it should be no labor at all to enter the mind of another. Tich Nhat Hahn has declared “We are here to recover from the illusion of our separateness.” I have heard it said that “We can escape from the self-imposed prison of personal isolation by deconstructing through personal meditation the bonds imposed by the delusion of selfhood.”

But endless repetition of the mantra “We are all one” does not make it so. As a convinced separatist, I believe that each of us is born either with or to a unique genome, immune system, neural network, memory, lifelong accumulation of experience, dream life, and succession of daily engagements, which taken together confirm each of us as a unique and separate experiment for which he or she is wholly responsible for perfecting, much as Peter Mark Roget was born to the task of refining his system of verbal classification precisely for the lifetime he was granted.

If I meditate, I am struck by the cacophony of thoughts and feelings—the psychic Armageddon—that would result if our fundamental separation turned out to be delusionary, a mere construction and convention of the culture we live in.

In my view, the workings of evolution depend on us responding differentially to the forces acting upon us; we tailor ourselves to the niches we occupy for the sake of survival. If we all thought and acted as if we were of one mind, we would self-destruct in an instant.

Instead of solving our common problems, deconstructing our individual minds would bring about the end, not only of personhood, but all humankind. Only discrete selves can take responsibility for their actions, and join cooperatively with others who are doing the same as led by their respective—and demonstrably separate—points of view.

My discomfort at approaching Dr. Roget’s mental processes too closely is a faint shadow of what might happen if we knocked down the walls of separation between our individual minds. Imagine having access to others’ minds in such a way that we could witness their thoughts and feelings from the perspective of our unique life experience!

That thought doesn’t bear thinking. I value Roget’s Thesaurus as the compilation by another man of his semantic struggle to ensure that his words reflected his personal thinking, as he hoped the words of others would reflect theirs. He was out to provide each of us with a tool that would do just that in each case. I find his effort—if worn and musty in places—to be not only admirable but remarkable in creating a set of word clusters that provide partial access to the workings of his subjective mind while, at the same time, are broad enough to allow the rest of us to do somewhat the same.

 

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.

 

The essential benefit of families is to give children a chance to build a store of memories that will serve to get them started in life, and perhaps see them through to the end. Love, liking, sex, companionship, respect, and cooperation help parents bond with each other as essentially different people. That bond is a gift they give their children who, born wholly naïve to the ways of the world, need early engagements with others to build memories, habits, and skills that will help them to stand on their own legs as capable adults when the time comes.

Whether heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or other, adult pairs that complement each other can provide the stimulation and stability necessary to maintain a functioning family that benefits children directly or indirectly during the restless journey to adulthood.

Couples don’t need to justify their existence by having children. They provide the same services by engaging each other so that, having a shared home to return to that restores them, they can go forth and do the work of the world in turning solar energy into deeds.

This benefit also spreads throughout the neighboring community. It takes true, skilled, generous, and reliable engagements to run the world, not the union of one man with one woman, which is only one example of a wide variety of productive human relationships.

There are as many kinds of marriages as there are couples. The essence of family is stability through mutual engagement, not any one particular kind of relationship. If we over-specify the nature of families based on a particular personal preference, morality founders on the sharp rocks of that heedless specificity.

Children don’t need orthodox beliefs to grow into competent adults, nor do any partners who already function on that level of competency. Expressions of mutual love help, along with enough healthful food to fuel the currents flowing through minds both young and adult, endowing them with coherent thoughts and meanings.

The essential thing in a family is to build a core of common experiences that stimulates the growth of all members on their respective levels of attainment. This requires a certain flexibility of expectation, not the rigidity of preordained results.

When I was two or three, the bed of an old canal that passed at the rear of our back yard in Hamilton, New York, was selected as the route of a new sewer. Big sections of concrete pipe were lined up along the banks of the canal, ready to be rolled into place. Walking unattended as a very young child along that line of pipe, I came to its end, which I immediately crawled into.

I remember the feel of the rough concrete surface on my hands and knees. My way into that tube of darkness grew ever dimmer, without any sign of light ahead. The pipe was too tight around my crawling frame to let me turn, so I tried backing up, which didn’t work. I had no choice but to keep crawling into the depths. Crawling. Crawling, scrape after scrape. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a way out.

The separate sections of pipe were pieced together so tightly that only faint hints of an outside world glowed dimly here and there. I was firm in my conviction that the only way out had to lie ahead. At a slight bend, I suddenly saw a faint shimmer from a wider gap in the distance. I kept crawling, and came to two sections of pipe that had not been closely fitted together, leaving a six-inch gap flooded with daylight. This was my chance! I scraped my way through that gap, drawing blood and white scratches along my arms and legs. I wormed my way upward toward the light, and stood free in the open air, taking the coolest, freshest breaths of my life.

Only then did I admit my stupidity in crawling into that line of pipe as if the dark opening had invited me in. I recognized taking that initial move as the bad idea it had been. I remember scolding myself never to do that again.

A certain lack of parental supervision in my case as middle child led to many subsequent episodes of my learning about the world on my own. I became an independent thinker. Whenever I could, I roamed the hills around town, getting scratched, wet, tired, and cold, but never cutting back on my roving explorations. I was on the path to adventure, realizing that if I was under anyone’s supervision, it was my own.

I see those qualities now as the gift of independence that my father took from his birth mother’s not showing up when he needed her. Turning bad situations into positive outcomes is an unsought but necessary result of living through tough times. Finding that positive way is up to those who suffer neglect, abuse, bullying, cruelty, or deprivation. If others torment us, we always have the ultimate option of going it alone under our own recognizance.

Here I am today, facing into the tunnel of introspection so surely shunned by respectable science. Well, so be it. Some may regard it as a sewer pipe; I see it as my way to revelation. My path of life lies precisely into this particular darkness. I’ve already seen many faint shimmers of light, and have no intention of turning back. This Web log is the record of my adventures so far. If I don’t take this particular path, who will? The way is not obvious, but I judge it to be essentially positive. It happens to be the route I’ve followed since earliest childhood.

Thanks for checking it out.

446. For My Eyes Only

March 2, 2015

Early on in childhood, I developed a strong sense of what was family fare and what was not. If my parents had never mentioned or even alluded to such things, that made me hesitant to make the first move. If my brothers hadn’t spoken up, I was sure to keep mum. There was a strong code of forbidden topics based on conjectures that my parents didn’t want to hear about matters that they couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about. Mimicry was safe; taking the initiative was scary.

In my early years I had a recurring nightmare, which I never shared with anyone, not inside my family, not outside. It was my secret.

In the dream, I was slowly slipping toward a glow in the lower right of my visual field, the rest of the field being a featureless black. The thrust of the dream was a deep, rhythmical beat in the background, relentless force moving my body, and a strong sense of helplessness in resisting movement that was not of my doing. When I woke up, I would be crying.

I could feel that dream coming on with a kind of pressure and sense of dread. I suffered that same dream periodically (weekly, monthly?) for several years, then after some time I realized I wasn’t having it anymore, but could still recall the details and the intimate horror at will. What sticks with me today is the feeling of that dream coming on, my being helpless to stop it. Relentless dread, that’s what I felt. Of being in the power of something I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t like anything else in my experience.

Later, when I was several years older, I had another recurring nightmare that conveyed much the same feeling. I could tell from the opening scene how it would play out, and, again, I couldn’t stop it.

In that second dream, I would crawl under a brick wall at the back of a building into a dark room with a pitted, earthen floor. From that room I would go into the streets at night when everyone was asleep, enter the house of a stranger, go upstairs into a bedroom and kill (I’m not sure by what means) a sleeper picked at random. I escaped by retracing my route back into the earthen-floored room and then crawling under the wall into daylight.

Two feelings always accompanied that second dream: the horror of what I was about to do—and then actually did—and the fact that no one would ever know that I had done it. It was my guilty secret.

Once begun, both dreams unfurled true to form, and I could not avoid the fear of what was sure to happen. I mention the two dreams together because they both incited the same feeling of helplessness and horror in facing into their respective inevitabilities. I was trapped and couldn’t help myself.

Looking back, I see both dreams as variations on the same theme. It was their unwinding to a sure end that they had in common, though the details were very different. I see the first dream as meant for a younger audience, the second for an audience familiar with village life and language. In the first the action was done unto me; in the second I was the actor responsible for what I did.

I never told anyone in my family about such dreams. They were for my eyes only, a note passed from me to myself.

Writing this post brings to mind another secret from early adolescence that I kept from my family. When I was a sophomore in Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, we’d often drive into the Sierras on a Sunday afternoon to visit Snoqualmie Falls, Lake 22, or some other scenic destination. On one return trip on a sunny spring day, my father let me practice my driving skills on the winding, hilly road through the mountains, steep cliffs rising on the right, an abrupt chasm dropping beyond the roadside barrier on the far left side of the road.

I remember realizing in one instant as I drove that if I made an abrupt turn to the left and crashed through the steel barrier, my entire family, including two dogs in the back, would be wiped-out. It was a moment of realizing the responsibility I had in my hands in learning to drive. I was horrified to find myself thinking such a thought.

Needless to say I didn’t turn the wheel on impulse, but the thought did occur to me. I’ve been a reasonably competent driver ever since. But that sudden connection in the depths of my brain when I was fifteen was both a realization and a warning. Had I been more of a risk taker, I might have veered briefly into the other lane just to give my family a scare they would never forget, reminding them of the truely intimate power I held over their lives.

I see child soldiers and young terrorists armed with automatic weapons as succumbing to such impulses because the brutal climate in which they live paints pulling the trigger in a favorable light that differentiates heroes from losers. Getting past that point in my growing up has made all the difference. We see every day in the news stories about those who swing the other way when opportunity arises.

Perhaps unwittingly, families convey nonverbal attitudes that are the forge in which children are worked into the shapes they will assume as mature adults. As I said in my previous post, families matter. Children learn to talk in a family setting; they also learn when to stay silent.

This post is the second installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

4. Walking Down Broadway. At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred from MIT to Columbia College, where I took up the study of the humanities in earnest during the last year in which that major was being offered. I studied cultural events in the city as extensively as books at the college. I needed a big dose of what the city had to offer.

On a spring night at a little past one o’clock, I was reading in my room, when suddenly I decided to walk the length of Broadway from 113th Street to the ferry terminal in lower Manhattan. Just me and my shadow, my solo wayfarer.

The signs, curbs, venting manhole covers, streetlights, water-towers, few cars, buildings, and people I met have now blended into an impressionistic collage of that walk, all of Broadway compacted into a single image distilled from my moving perspective, largely visual, partly made of sounds and smells wafting my way as I went. That and a sense of great adventure is what I have left. And of belonging right where I was. I can’t recall specific details—they’ve faded away. I must have passed through Columbus Circle, Times Square, Union Square. I can’t remember how long it took. I know I got to South Ferry at dawn, and took the subway to 113th Street. When I got back, I thought of doing it again in daylight, but went off to class instead.

5. Walking to Concord. Thinking about my walk down Broadway reminds me of another walk I made with my younger brother, Peter, a few years later, a cultural walk of a different color because largely rural, not urban. I met him at his apartment near Kenmore Square in Boston at noon on a Saturday, and together we headed west to place stones on the cairn at the site of Thoreau’s cabin twenty miles west in Walden Woods near the famous pond.

Once past Cambridge, we walked back roads the rest of the way, immersing ourselves in the region as we imagined it had been a hundred years ago, and in some stretches still was in the 1960s. Narrow roads, stone walls, farm ponds, and apple trees, which went on for miles, are what I remember. Our feet may have trod the modern ways of Lincoln and Lexington, but our thoughts were with Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau in the Concord of their day. Time warps are available for the doing if you set your mind to it.

We got to Walden Pond at dusk, and I remember scrambling for stones to add to the cairn at Rolly Robbins’ reconstruction on the site of Thoreau’s cabin just back from the pond. Walking twenty miles to add a few stones to a humble monument in the woods seemed a sensible thing to do. We walked into Concord in the dark, sure we would find a bus stop somewhere along the way. Luck was with us, and we just caught the ten-o’clock bus back to Boston. Now that Peter is dead, that walk stands out as one of the highlights of our brotherhood.

6. Routine Engagement. In 1955, I worked as an engineering aide in the servomechanisms group at Boeing Aircraft in Renton just south of Seattle. I had a desk in a giant hangar of a building filled wall-to-wall with similar desks, an engineer seated at each one. That was in the days before cubicles and sound-absorbing tiles, just one big room with a sky-high ceiling. The only thing on my desk was a lever-operated mechanical calculator.

I spent six months making charts and plots on graph paper, a task I was used to from my year of mechanical drawing at MIT. One day my supervisor explained that one of two prototype B-52 airplanes was showing a tendency to veer (his term was yaw) to the side, and he wanted me to plot fuel consumption of all four engines to see if one engine was burning more or less fuel than the others.

The fuel consumption records consisted of a series of actual photos of dials taken during each test flight. I was told which flight to check, and sent to the large hangar where the records were kept. I got the photos in a thick file, read the dials for all four engines during that particular flight, went back to my desk and plotted the hundreds of points I had read from the dials. My graphs showed that all engines were burning the same amount of fuel.

What I remember is the bleakness of the days I spent on that job. Doing the duty I was assigned in a mechanical frame of mind. I was engaged to the extent of doing what I had been asked to do, being sure of my accuracy in reading, writing down, figuring, and plotting long series of numbers. But beyond that I was not personally engaged, just pulling the lever on my calculator again and again. I set up a routine to get through the day, effectively renting out my brain to help solve someone else’s problem. I was in a room full of people, but hardly talked with anyone all day, punching my time card when I left.

At the end of six months, I was drafted into the Army, and left Seattle for basic training at Fort Ord near Salinas, California. Ever since, wayfarer that I am, I have made sure to choose my engagements from among those that appealed to me as much as walking down Broadway at night.

 

Our brains are too puny to account for the fullness of, and variations between, our minds. We can study the brain forever and not find diamonds, electricity, tartans, boomerangs, umlauts, or inhabitable planets in far galaxies.

When we die as individuals, such things persist in our cultural repository. When all people die, then only the mind of nature will be left, and nature’s brain, which is the whole Earth itself from whose waters and soils we have risen into sunlight.

Nature and culture are unnamed lobes of the brain. We participate in them as much as we do our own thoughts. Without them, we wayfarers in our black-box vessels would not float on life’s currents. Nature and culture (including art, science, politics, economics, literature, and religion) are concepts in our minds, and memes in our cultures. We become imaginable only in their fields of influence. The initiative to engage them is up to us.

We find ourselves simply thrown here at birth by forces we do not understand any more than we do gravity. We know only that we have to stack dishes bottom to top, and that when we trip we will fall down. If we are wise, we will learn to live in gravitational fields, natural fields, cultural fields, subjective fields.

Simply put, that is both our heritage and our destiny if we are to fulfill the promise we are born to. Pitch-in and engage the best we can, that is the way. Start by opening our eyes, focusing, lifting our heads, paying attention, looking at and listening to the sights and sounds around us. Opening ourselves to the great ambient that is ours by birth, whether we discover ourselves in Mongolia, Tibet, Syria, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, Finland, or the south side of Chicago.

We will come into selfhood by starting where we are, when we are there, then moving on through nature and culture while always being true to ourselves, building on that genetic and cultural platform. How far can we go in a single lifetime? That is the question. All we can do is start out and see where our legs carry us on our great, unforeseen journey.

Culture can be as much an impediment as it is a way to the future. We have to be selective in how we follow the advice and example of our family, friends, and elders. Pick and choose, that is the way of engagement. As guided by our personal judgment acquired through years of proceeding by trial and error.

Take a step and see where it gets us. Then retreat or move ahead, or bound like a knight in a game of chess. Or even stay put where we are. We all have choices, all the time, wherever we are.

Ever rethinking, we revise and adjust our engagements. That is called growth. Learning through experience. Blazing our own trails. Being ourselves. Not who we were, but who we are on the way to becoming who we will turn out to be.

No, we can’t know in advance; we have to find out through a process of self-discovery. That is the adventure of a lifetime, the very reason we are here. Our survival depends upon it.