The art to understanding a situation assembled by human intelligence is to gather the pieces together and try to fit them along their natural contours so that they complement one another, adding to a larger whole—forming what my high school physics teacher called “the big picture.”

In recent posts to my blog (since about post No. 347), I have been trying to develop the big picture of my personal consciousness, piece by piece, in a consecutive series intended to present my inner mind as a whole. After engaging with the stars in this series of posts, I will discuss the progress I have made, summarize my findings, and draw what conclusions I think are warranted by my work on this project.

The greatest difficulty I have had is a result of my going against the grain of consciousness studies in this technological age of neuroscience. Modern researchers are highly invested in their costly equipment, and overlook introspection as a suspiciously low-tech, low-budget enterprise beyond the reach of peer review. With only one experimental subject, what value can one such limited study contribute to our current understanding of consciousness?

That is, the baby gets unwittingly tossed with the bath water before anyone (but the introspector) suspects a case can be made for something splashing about in the tub. Once I claim in my big-picture findings that, indeed, such a case might be warranted, there is no one around willing to go back to Go and start developing the big picture all over again.

The irony is that the only direct access to consciousness is available on a first-person basis to the subject herself. Studying the brain will not reveal the structure of consciousness. Disciplined introspection is the only method that provides a clear picture of the constituents and structure of consciousness.

My focus has been on my perceptual errors, the very criterion professionals use to dismiss consciousness as a serious topic of study by way of introspection. But errors open the way to the big picture they reveal in their shadow. You just have to stick with it; in two years you’ll have enough data to fuel ten years of analysis and writing-up results.

Yet in other fields, I see feisty individuals gathering all the relevant pieces and assembling something entirely fresh with the discards from what has already been done, expanding the limits of what is thought possible. Croatian cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser are turning musical conventions to entirely new uses by combining pop and classical styles once thought incompatible, with formidable (yes, that’s the word) results.

An Indonesian woman working as a domestic in Hong Kong has gathered the courage to defy the convention of cowering before her employer, and has splashed the big picture across front pages around the world, publically declaring the secret tyranny of the system.

Big pictures expose the hidden truth trapped in the shadows of conventional practice. We get so caught up in our conventional wisdom that we can’t see anything else but the lies and half-truths we keep telling ourselves in maintaining our respectable ways and beliefs.

Taking the fragments of historical human engagements with the stars, what sense can we make of them as a group? That is my next project in this blog. Cosmologist Brian Swimme did it before me in the late 1980s and 1990s in his twelve-part video, Canticle to the Cosmos. He and Thomas Berry developed the notion that we need a “new story” about humanity’s place in the universe. Theologians, who have been on the forefront of human understanding of such matters for some five thousand years, now must give way to a new breed of cosmologists who update the story from a wholly new perspective based on recent achievements in space science.

I was born to a small town with five steeple houses built well before my time. I passed them every day on my way to school, but no one told me what they were about. Later I got a dose of the old story in one of them, a tale of mumbo-jumbo about virgin births and resurrections and assumptions into heaven. Even as a kid I knew enough about the way the world works to recognize flapdoodle when I heard it directed at me as God’s truth.

My life has been a matter of gathering fragments to piece together as a big picture that puts the small, narrow picture hung in all those steeple houses to shame. The very word religion stems from Latin religare meaning to bind or tie back to old ways of belief based on God’s directives relayed to Earthly priests by patterns among the stars. The priests’ job was to make sure that people did what God told them to do from his high seat in heaven.

It would be nice if we could start with recent archaeological findings at sites such as Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey because of its dating back to 9,000 BCE. But it’s a recent dig, and theories about its purpose haven’t had time to reach any sort of consensus. Some of its incised reliefs remind me of imaginative renderings of stellar constellations, but it isn’t known whether the many so-called temples were roofed over or open to the sky.

Stonehenge on England’s Salisbury Plain and Several Sumerian sites at the then head of the Persian Gulf were roughly contemporary in dating to 3,200 BCE. Stonehenge is definitely aligned along its major axis with the summer solstice, so could have been established as an observatory to keep track of the sun’s apparent motion along the ecliptic, so serving to peg seasonal labors and rituals to cyclical celestial events. Which was exactly what Sumerian priests did with their ziggurats, now just mounds in the desert, but once the center of human understanding of man’s place in the universe.

In my next post I will begin with the Sumerian system of belief, which still lives in our religious views of today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My understanding of my own mind rests on committing my mental resources to working through the run of situations that arise and evolve in daily life. That commitment is what I mean by engaging the world beyond the limits of my bodily envelope.

Baseball offers one such medium of engagement based on the commitment to engage another team by playing a certain role both offensively as a batter and defensively as pitcher, catcher, infielder, or outfielder in a manner that conforms to the rules of the game.

Jazz offers another medium of engagement for playing a particular instrument in rehearsing and performing in a certain traditional style or idiom of music. Ballet is a third medium, and so on through a host of others including poetry, literature, theater, film, art, gardening, politics, religion, finance, science, technology, education, and so on. All opening me to various ways of performing in my daily engagement with the world, and so surviving the best I can as the sort of person I am.

All media are disciplined ways of being conscious in the world, and of engaging accordingly, perceiving in certain ways, judging in certain ways, performing in certain ways. What all such media of being conscious share in common is the commitment to and expression of mental situations as they arise and evolve. Those situations themselves are largely shaped by the medium chosen for their apt expression. Some situations are appropriate to ballet, jazz, or baseball, respectively. Others require treatment in media offering other disciplined ways of being oneself.

Fueled by a range of emotion, memories, biological values, understandings, imaginings, impressions, beliefs, and other dimensions of personal experience, our situated intelligence—what we gloss as our inner selves—guides and coordinates our judgments, actions, and perception in engaging the world in a manner we find personally appropriate, meaningful, and satisfying (or to some degree not).

We are as we engage, and engage as we discover ourselves situated within the dimensions of our lifelong intelligence, training, and experience. That’s life. The adventure, journey, odyssey we commit ourselves to for precisely one lifetime.

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

If, as I claim, wildness is subjective (phenomenological), so, too, are happiness and its pursuit. Feelings and values are not in the world but in our minds. In fact, the world, insofar as we can be aware of it, is in us, along with everything else we can experience. We are not born to a world so much as born to ourselves.

What the world does supply is patterns of ambient energy, many of which we come to recognize as familiar, and to which we give names. And not only names (to single them out), but meanings in relation to our memories of personal experience, so we come to understand (stand under or support) those familiar patterns in personal ways. We lay meanings on the patterns we associate them with, making it seem as though that significance came with the patterns (as information), but actually the patterns elicit it from our memory of earlier patterns we have experienced and named in particular situations. Which is why someone speaking to me in Russian, say, or Arabic may believe she is telling me something, while I (a speaker solely of English) hear only the sounds she makes (the patterns of energy issuing from her lips) without the meanings she associates with those sounds.

Learning a language means learning to associate personal meanings with particular sound combinations directed by members of our culture at us on specifiable occasions, which we translate or construe as personally meaningful situations. It is how we understand those situations that is mapped onto the recognizable sounds that we hear, so that the situation conveys the meaning we come to link to the speech sounds we hear on that occasion.

Speech, that is, is made up from both a public and a private component, one a patterned flow of energy as speech sounds, and the other a sense of the currents of mental activity within us that accompanies our hearing of those sounds. Putting the public and private components together, we “hear” meaningful speech.

How wild is that? Unruly or whimsical enough that each person present when a certain utterance is made may take it differently (that is, personally) although each assumes they all speak the same language.

Only by smoothing the differences between our individual streams of experience through rote repetition and iron discipline do we ever approach speaking and understanding somewhat similar languages. It is far easier to assume we all speak the same language than to accept the idiosyncratic nature of the language-learning process. Which is why there is so much misunderstanding between us, because we don’t hear what is said to us in the same way it is spoken, much less speak truly for our inner selves.

Nothing is wilder than the nonsense we spout when we don’t monitor our own efforts at speech. We often seem to say one thing but mean something quite different, particularly when we try to please our audience by saying what we think they want to hear. Hard as it is, sticking to the facts of personal experience is best, along with listening carefully to what others say in response.

The problem is that so-called facts are a blend of public sounds and personal meanings, so are seldom as clear as we want them to be. One approach is to say what we said again in different words, then to be open to whatever response comes back, and to keep trying in the spirit of true dialogue between equals.

Wild words often miss their mark if the passions behind them, the fears and desires, are suppressed or lead to unintended consequences. If we were the rational beings we claim to be, we’d speak the true every time, but we aren’t and we don’t. Rationality is a myth, or at best an ideal we aspire to but seldom attain.

Instead of blaming others for the troubles of the world, we do better to get clear in our minds what we want to accomplish, then remake the world one person at a time, one engagement at a time. When words are involved, we have to remember that words don’t contain meanings so much as suggest them to other minds having unique habits of speech. It takes time and effort to reconcile differences in personal outlook and understanding in even the simplest situation. “Hi, how are you?” opens onto a spectrum of possible responses. The color of the reply is not ours to predict.

Interpersonal engagements are not set pieces so much as voyages of exploration and discovery. We send our words into the world to see where they take us. Life has but one destination; the route we take in arriving there makes all the difference.

It is good to remember how wild words can be, especially in tense situations. On that note I’ll sign off for now. Y’r brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2010)

I am ever the hero of my own little drama as I act it out in my head. It can’t be otherwise because I am the author and sole interpreter of the script as it is revealed to me (that is, as I make it up minute by minute). My life is a performance of my story, first concocted in my head, then performed on the virtual (from my point of view) stage of the unknowable world. Picture me behind the door of my mind—the one with the star—posing in my dressing gown before a full-length mirror, mouthing the words I am rehearsing for the grand performance I’m to give in a few moments. If you were lucky, you’d be in the audience. Too bad you can’t make the show because you are rehearsing your own performance before your own full-length mirror in a different dressing room, also with a star on the door.

We are heroes to ourselves because we can do no wrong. Even when we commit stupid or cruel acts, we are automatically off the hook because, no matter how others see us, we appear blameless to ourselves. Self-interest is our only motive, so by definition we have to be right because we can always justify what we do. It is they, those others, who are at fault—they just don’t understand.

Each a hero in her own eyes; what a wonderful system. Perfection itself on two legs, facing the world, looking about for yet more heroic labors worthy of our talents and strengths. Whatever feats others may perform, we can do better. Why waste time pretending to be modest if in all honesty we’re the greatest? I mean, what-is-the-point? Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If corporations ever got on to the power of categorization so they were able to set the terms in which we all see the world, there’d be hell to pay.

If we manage to do no harm by living our span to the fullest, then a self-assertive life such as I have described in those first three paragraphs amounts to a comedy. But despite our good intentions, we are never as innocent as we claim. Others do without basic necessities so that we may live higher on the hog than they can imagine. Eyes straight ahead, we are only dimly aware of the ruin in our wake. With an automobile, I have killed pheasants, dogs, cats, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, dragonflies, and thousands of others. I have been trained as a killer by the U.S. Army; I don’t doubt that my training was successful on occasion, even well after the fact. But there I go again, blaming my training, while the true killer is the self that I am whose hungers demand to be fed.

Our myopic perspectives and insatiable appetites render life more tragic than comic. Think of the innocents slaughtered in our name (beef cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and thousands of plants, many of which bear genes similar to our own). We live at far greater expense than we know or choose to bother ourselves about.

All because we categorize and sort the world for personal gain as we imagine it, without consulting others in advance. Selfish and glib, that’s what we are. I know, I am one who has shaped the world to his advantage as long as he can remember. Not deliberately or knowingly, perhaps, but effectively that is how I have lived my life. Following my nose, which means following the dictates of self-interest and personal advantage. The difference between me following my nose and Bernie Madoff following his is he’s in prison and I’m not. Or if I am in fact behind bars, those bars are the steely cage around my consciousness, armoring the very wits by which I survive.

I use such imagery to describe the categorizing aspect of consciousness because we cannot avoid casting our most self-serving concepts upon sensory patterns representing what we can know of the world. With the exception of messages from great corporations, those phenomenal patterns do not come to us presorted and pre-categorized; it is we who bend them to our purposes by seeing them from our unique points of view as recorded in our personal histories of concept formation, cleaned and gutted of telling details, hollowed-out for general utility later on, leaving only husks, not the essence. Categorization—recognizing the “true” nature of things—is not an impartial act; we are invested in what uses we can make of a thing for our personal advancement, so bestow categories on it that will serve us well later on. A spade is not just a spade nor a rose simply a rose; in each case they are functionally what we make them out to be. A spade can kill, a rose ingratiate us with others who will owe future favors.

Machiavelli didn’t come out of the blue; he was the product of his own urge to survive. So, too, de Sade. And Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, who wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” I say all survival is based on deception, particularly of the self. To us, our miscategorizations always appear fair and just. The self is in full command of its resources and does not submit to casual scrutiny. You have to infer its self-deceptions from its actual deeds. That makes it all the easier to confound its dictates with truth or reality, subject of my last post (Reflection 197: Backing Off).

Our entire neural apparatus intercedes between the self and its grasp of the world. Our senses don’t deliver the world-as-it-is to our doorstep, they bring us images transduced and reformulated by our sensory system—the world being at least once removed as translated into the neural language of action potentials and flowing neurotransmitters. Which memory scans for familiar patterns in order to categorize what we hear (see, touch, taste, smell) in terms of concepts made meaningful by prior experience. At every step of our life journey we reinvent ourselves and the situation we’re faced with based on patterns we’ve encountered before and the concepts we’ve derived from them. The world as-it-is-in-itself never enters our minds.

No matter how subtle, most categorizations are heroic distortions for personal gain in being consistent with biological values inherent in the self—namely you and me. Our meanings lie ready, waiting to seize on familiar neural signals. The perceptual side of consciousness is concerned with sensory patterns and relationships, and so is more cordial in being ruled by curiosity about, and interest in, what’s out there than by survival at any cost. Categorization answers questions raised by curiosity about the world, but personal aesthetics first decide what’s relevant and what isn’t. I don’t mean aesthetics focused solely on beauty; I mean picking up on sensory patterns and relationships apart from any meaning they may have for us. That is, sensory signals as not yet—but soon to be—recognized and categorized. Such as the tonal makeup and rhythms of a familiar voice or piece of music; the shape, size, color, and motion of a familiar bird; the feel of our fingers wrapping around the steering wheel of our family car; the scent of Spanish rice as Mother used to make it.

The mapping of categories onto sensory patterns, and vice versa, are two of the major achievements of consciousness. Experience and awareness meet in constituting a current moment of engagement with our world. The salience or relevance of the signal can be in attention or memory, but categorizing a sensory episode as a meaningful experience is our doing in either case. We are fulfilled in being simultaneous pattern detectors and categorizers in that moment. When our personal histories coincide with the sensory now, we are on familiar ground and know our options for making an appropriate response to the situation we’re in. The past claims the now, moving our heroic-aesthetic self one notch toward the future.

We are so quick to draw categories from our quiver, we come to think sensory patterns come to us with meanings attached to them, as if they were meaningful in and of themselves. But even if we are in our everyday mode of categorization, we are the ones responsible for bringing sensory inputs and conceptual meanings together. The meaning isn’t in the music or the image, it is in us. Always in us. If the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pour out of the radio and there’s no one to hear it, then the sounds go unrecognized, and the radio may be turned on, but Beethoven’s Fifth is not playing. If the sensory-pattern recognizer and categorizer is absent, then for all practical purposes the moment is lost. Think of a car skidding off the road, hitting a tree, killing the driver, with the radio playing relentlessly to his unhearing ears and lifeless body. Is the radio still playing? To one discovering the scene, perhaps, but not to the late driver.

Categorization takes time—on the order of a few tenths of a second. It is possible to live in the gap between pattern reception and the act of recognition that fits it to a category. We can prolong that gap as long as we please by focusing solely on sensory patterns and their internal relationships, dispensing with conceptual meanings as irrelevant—as we often do in listening to music without words, scanning the surface of a painting, savoring scents on a damp day in fall, and walking in woods or along the shore—giving ourselves to our surroundings instead of claiming to know them in advance.

As a photographer for the Information Service at Iowa State University in 1960, I used to photograph boxing matches and basketball games, giving my total attention to the action in the ring or under the basket. I was so engaged in my personal zone, I lived to anticipate what was about to happen because if I waited to find out, it was too late to click the shutter. Peering at the scene through the viewfinder of my camera, living in that space, when the match or game was over, I had to ask to find out who’d won.

Yes, sounds dumb, and it was because I had no use for speech and meaning. Just as when I visit galleries and avoid reading what the artist says about a painting or photograph, or even the label of what I am looking at. I don’t want titles or grand ideas, I want the visual experience, which the title or blurb takes away from me so that I know about the image without experiencing it for myself. In such a case, words are not the issue. They are someone else’s categorizations, and I have no interest in them. Later, perhaps, but not now. Not till I’ve pushed the experience as far as I can take it, exploring the image, noting the colors and their relationships, textures, shapes, angles, brushstrokes, making the image live in me so that I have a personal acquaintance with it. That way, I still see the world through my own eyes. Maybe later, I’ll bother to read what someone else has to say about it.

I still recall being disappointed when I led a group of eleventh graders on an excursion through woods where I wanted them to learn about their natural surroundings by touch, smell, sound—any way but sight (see Reflection 149: Blind Walk). Pairing up, one partner was to assure the safety of the other who, blindfolded, explored her surroundings by hand, ear, and nose. But despite my instructions, everyone made a guessing game of the exercise, the presumed object being to shout out the name of each object encountered. For them, the name said it all; sensory experience was beside the point. Which, I realized sadly, was the result of the schooling we run our children through in making them dutiful inductees into our culture. The label—the right answer—is of the essence; personal experience is not part of the curriculum. I was trying to awaken my students to sensory details they could use to enliven their writing, but had to work harder than I planned to get that message across.

Listening to music without words is one of the best ways I know of to experience the pre-categorical, sensory aspect of consciousness. Jazz and classical music work equally well; ballads less well because the words steal the show. The trick is to give yourself to the notes themselves as they rise and fall in time, noticing their duration, their tonal relationships, the quality of the different notes, the interacting voices of the instruments, echoes and repetitions, larger or smaller leaps than you expect, comparing where you think the music is going to where it actually leads, and so on. That way, you make each piece your own because you have lived inside it in your own consciousness, not merely followed along at a distance.

Abstract painting is a great medium for exploring visual relationships between different shapes, hues, values, textures,  sizes, and orientations of patches of color. It is such Thank you, Franz Klinerelationships that turn different patches into patterns of visual stimulation, elevating discrete sensory differences into an overall design which holds together because its internal workings add to something larger than themselves. Faced with an abstract by Franz Kline, for instance, seen from the right distance, the eye never stops ricocheting around the surface, darting to every corner in search of the next salient feature, knitting the parts into a stimulating and satisfying whole. Don’t take my word for it, words are irrelevant. Just give of yourself in free exploration and see what you find.

If we don’t explore sensory patterns before we categorize them as this or that, we may lose the opportunity because habit is apt to take over and short-circuit fresh perception altogether. I have mentioned in an earlier post the distinguished historian of science who put a print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk—and never saw it again. We have to make a deliberate effort to notice sensory patterns when we have the chance, or they may well disappear as so much cultural wallpaper. I remember staying home from school as a kid because I was sick, and getting so tired of hearing the same old chestnuts favored by radio stations in Syracuse—in those days The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rhapsody in Blue—that I still associate them with canned chicken soup and ginger ale. Try to really listen to Ravel’s Bolero and see how long you last.

No frill to me, aesthetics is the high art of noticing. Of really paying attention to sensory details wherever I find them. Of giving myself to life in order that life will give itself to me. When I don’t make the effort, life glides right past me like so many telephone poles by the side of the road. This is what I mean by “being there,” putting my values where my body is so that I engage what is truly going on from my personal perspective. Sensory exploration is essential to getting the most out of life instead of glossing it prematurely with a dismissive categorization. Seen one, seen ‘em all. No, each individual being or event is unique in the world, and must be experienced to be appreciated. If we are bored with life, we are bored with ourselves for not taking the initiative to first give of ourselves to our surroundings in order to elicit their response.

At the dentist’s office in Bangor yesterday, I read in Time Magazine the news that great things were coming to the so-called third world in the form of first-world TV shows finally getting the global audience they so richly deserve. I put the magazine down and though about the benefits of pre-packaged experiences going by so fast that they amount to missed opportunities for doing something personally significant on the local scene. 

Mass media are the enemy of human consciousness because they are meant to overwhelm us, not engage us. We can’t ask questions or say how we feel. Try writing a letter to Time or Newsweek about their opinionated coverage of world events and you’ll get back a form letter much like the one you get from your Representative or Senator saying how much your letters mean to them. As if words and categorizations were reality itself. In truth, the corporate mass media are dumbing down the world, separating persons from their individual opportunities to have local experiences.

It’s not that, as the voice of corporate America, the media pre-package experience so much as that they pre-digest it for us, too, so there’s nothing else for us to do but sit and watch flat screens the evening through after working all day in a cubicle watching other flat screens. We should be out raising flowers and vegetables; watching birds, spiders, and insects; milking cows; hiking or swimming in the wilds with our kids; using our minds to make something of ourselves instead of letting the corporate media remake us to suit their agendas. For-profit corporate personhood is an assault on the Earth and all forms of life. Corporations are not alive, and know nothing about living beings. Their sole purpose is to make money for their owners, which they do at the expense of not only their owners themselves, but of all living beings.

Heroic conceptual categorizations laid on us by corporations doing our thinking for us, coupled to lazy sensory-pattern detection on our part, is leading us all down the primrose path to global catastrophe. The solution is to reclaim personhood for those who are still individuals among us, destroying the very idea of mass media in the process. The only media that work are intended for individuals, not the masses. We will never do better than face-to-face conversations, personal letters, or phone conversations. That way, we reserve categorization to ourselves as called forth by the aesthetic patterns we discover in daily experience. Once we forget how to do that, the end is not only near, it is behind us, leaving nobody to listen as the pretty music plays on.

Squash blossom soon to unfurl

(Copyright © 2010)

Do we have it in us? Can we back off from our project of building a future for ourselves, leaving room for those around us who are doing the same? Are we so dedicated to our agenda that we can’t appreciate that others are pursuing needs of their own? Who is to declare us right and them wrong? I mean, who aside from ourselves?

The trouble with sticking to corporate agendas with excessive zeal is that it sucks the air out of the room, leaving no oxygen for others to breathe. Is that our goal in life, to assert ourselves to the point that others suffocate in our presence? Are we capable of giving them leeway, some space to breathe? Just enough so they are comfortable in our presence, and vice versa. Are Israelis capable of backing off the Palestinians’ case, allowing them to live on their own without Israeli supervision to make sure they don’t step out of bounds?

The only way Israelis will ever live in peace is to permit Palestinians to do likewise without interference. Not just permit, insist that is their right. Instead of governing by domination, it would be better to step back, adopt a sensible two-state solution, and recognize that sovereignty for one group is workable only if all groups have equal claims to freedom and justice. As it is, Israelis regard Palestinians conceptually, as if they existed in a vacuum—but the vacuum is an emptiness in Israeli imagination.

Why is “the other” so difficult to picture in the mind? We know why the Palestinians are angry, the Israelis took their homeland out from under them by violent means. The Israelis are angry because Palestinians are blocking their agenda, coming between a people and their dream. In some ways, the Israeli dream is similar to the Palestinian dream—to live in peace. Israelis go further and insist on occupying the particular ground that they lost two millennia ago. If the Israelis were to back off, they might discover that both sides want the same thing in modern times. Which would seem to elevate the two-state solution to the level of a win-win compromise. True, neither would take possession of the entire state, but both could have access to it on peaceful terms. Is not living at peace with one’s neighbors preferable to dying an extremist’s death for an unjust cause that is wholly self-serving, and wrongly so?

Passion does not render miscategorizations accurate or fair. Insistence does not transform a claim into a right. Often the wise are those waiting patiently for their opponents to come to terms on their own without being forced. Such a strategy allows those on the opposite side to catch themselves overreaching so that, as in jujitsu, it is they who are shown to be off-balance. Extremists overreach themselves in denying the integrity of those they miscategorize or misjudge. Like hornets, they stir up commotions and alarms to snuff out the slightest hint their cause is any less righteous than they claim.

As for righteousness, no one has defended it better than the Congregation of the Holy Office has protected the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. After the fact, that body was advised to categorize Copernicus’s heliocentric theory as heresy, which led to Galileo being forced in 1633 to recant evidence provided by his telescopic investigations in support of the sun’s being the center of the universe as then understood, not the Earth as scripture would have it. Categorized as a heretic, Galileo was placed under permanent house arrest as a threat to the faith. Which is pretty much how Israel treats Palestinians today, categorizing them as threats to the state, so shutting them behind walls of concrete to teach them their place in the Israeli scheme of things.

Undue vehemence in support of particular categorizations of how things stand—or should stand—in the world is rampant around the globe. It comes as a shock to realize that bigotry on behalf of extreme beliefs is not a thing of the past. Bigotry divides people into two classes: those who are with us and those opposed; those who are right and those who are wrong. With the subtext that the right have truth and justice on their side, so are fully justified in censoring the free speech of the wrong by categorizing it as vicious and unfounded lies. That is, one effective way to guard against defamation is to defame your opponent before he is able to frame the debate. Which illustrates the power of our deliberate and conscious minds to use categorization in identifying and destroying at one blow those who oppose us.

Such tactics have become the American way. Consider these examples. 1) Political parties don’t lose elections anymore, they have them stolen by unscrupulous opponents. 2) Once corporations were categorized as persons, they were deemed to have freedom of speech under the First Amendment, which was stretched by activist judges to include the spending of money as a form of free speech—by lining those ducks in a row, the judicial branch singlehandedly undid our representative form of government as described in the U.S. Constitution. 3) Raise the issue of gun control within hearing of the National Rifle Association and you will trigger a tirade by CEO Wayne LaPierre in which absolute heresy is too weak a term for what you are are trying to say (“bullshit” would be his term); instantly you find yourself characterized as an evil terrorist out to prevent decent women and children from defending themselves with firearms, as (he will claim) specifically provided for in the Second Amendment.

Then there is AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., which claims to level the playing field for all discussions concerning Israel—but comes at such discussions from so aggressive an angle as to tilt the field smartly in its favor. For AIPAC, history is destiny, and modern Israel is seen as “fulfilling a political and historical imperative,” an imperative that makes no mention of Palestine or Palestinians, a place and a people wholly eliminated from the Jewish dream of founding a homeland in modern times. Which raises the issue, when dreams are turned to reality, what happens to those excluded from the dream? Does it matter? In this case, evidently, but not to the dreamers.

My point in this post is that in building a future for ourselves, we all attempt to reify or actualize dreams based on our prior experience, or sacred texts (as in the First and Second Amendments, or the Torah). First we visualize and categorize the kind of future we want for ourselves, then we develop the project of fulfilling our dreams as apt categorizations of reality. That, basically, is how consciousness works in the interest of our individual survival as far as we can push it.

But in realizing our dreams, it is better to include the world in its living diversity, not solely the narrow territory of our personal yearnings as we would project them onto a barren globe. If we don’t work with the lay of the land and the tribes that occupy it, we are apt to impose ourselves roughly in their midst, as Hitler did in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, North Africa, and the Balkans during World War II. And as the Jews did in 1948—and are still doing today—in what for a time was known as Palestine, and long before that was shown on maps of the time as Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Israel, Philistia, Judah, Persia, Palestina, Jerusalem, Galilee, among other fleeting categorizations.

Given the complexity of human movements and settlements around the Earth, staking a dream claim to any particular area requires a clarity of vision far beyond what the human mind can consciously attain. Columbus claimed the so-called New World as a province of the Old, in one gesture sweeping away the sovereign relationship Native Americans had with the land they lived on. The result is that such campaigns to claim and categorize a place invariably do violence to the historical record, and are conveniently based on the limited views of a small group of assertive people in one place at one time. Such as the Bush administration in deciding to bomb Afghanistan and invade Iraq. Knowing that, as we all must by now, we are well advised to be cautious in mapping ourselves onto Earth’s living surface. At the very least we must allow for those who are already there, since forcing ourselves upon them is bound to lead to resentment and cycles of revenge for the foreseeable future.

It makes more sense to back off from our dreams and develop a live and let-live philosophy that takes other perspectives with other histories into account. Those of us alive today are latecomers to our planet. We may think of ourselves as Adam and Eve in some nouveau Garden of Eden, but the fact is wherever we go, Earth is one giant midden heap consisting of the decomposing ruins of all that has come before us in this place. Excavating for a subway tunnel, we will come across a forgotten palace or perhaps the bones of a saber-toothed tiger. Future excavators will likely dig up the refrigerator we leave at curbside today.

If our minds are so preoccupied they can’t see that each of us is but one point of light in a coruscating multitude, then we are not fully conscious, and our categorizations are apt to be wildly inaccurate because our outreach and intelligence are seriously flawed. Acting as if our judgment were infallible, we head straight for the nearest cliff. Actions we accept on faith to be true and just will surely turn out to be false, unfair, and cruel. To others as well as ourselves and our heirs. Leaving us stunned with massive internal injuries. What we need is largeness of mind from the start, not as a sorry afterthought. The way to achieve that is to resist mapping our personal meanings onto others without consulting them first; just because we can paint them as we see them doesn’t mean a casual sketch is as good as a studied rendition. Our well-intentioned categorizations represent things only as we view them at the time, not as they are. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume we haven’t a clue about most things most of the time, and that we know not whereof we rave and rant.

It is better if we do not insist on pushing our agenda to its foregone conclusion. That is, instead of committing to a plan of action, if we back off after our first move and wait to see what will happen. Embarking on a looping engagement with those around us, we remain open to an easy give-and-take with the situation as it develops. We are wise to see what happens before acting again. Consciousness can come to a decision in a fraction of a second, but reacting at that rate, we base the future largely on assumptions we can’t rightly make at that speed. Even after a day or a month, we can’t know very much about conducting ourselves in the world. It takes decades to develop a sense of who we are and what we’re doing—I’d say fifty years at a minimum. Until then, we have only a weak sense of what we don’t know we don’t know. If you are impulsive and can’t wait, then plunge ahead; I promise you’ll learn something new—or will if you keep an open mind.

As it is, Republicans in Congress don’t seem very keen on new learning at this stage of their development. They’re right up there with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which hasn’t learned much in 2,000 years of rigid, top-down, authoritarian, paternalistic organization. Nor have AIPAC and the NRA much to show for all the stands they’ve taken because, like Alois Ratzinger (a.k.a. Benedict XVI), they claim infallibility in being so headstrong they can’t learn anything they don’t already know. These are not people you can trust to usher in the future of the world because they are so busily defending their corporate points of view.

“Catholic” means including or concerning all humankind (AHD). Which would seem to require broad sensitivity to grassroots affairs, not a heavy-handed, authoritarian approach radiating top-down from an infallible apex of one man. But once an idea germinates in human consciousness and becomes institutionalized, then it ceases to develop and ossifies as if, like commandments, it is written in stone. The same fate hardens interpretations of constitutional amendments, homelands depicted in ancient scripture, platforms of political parties, colonial attitudes toward native peoples. Like ants in amber, ideas get embedded into agendas and serve as mission statements chartered by law.

I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog that consciousness is a property of individual persons, not corporate bodies. When regarded as if groupthink were the equivalent of personal consciousness, then the weight of collective thought becomes extremely dangerous, as in the case of each of the examples I have provided in this post. When multitudes behave as if of one mind, then mob rule is inevitable. With disastrous results.

Better, we place our trust in individuals who plant flower gardens, go dancing, thrive in the presence of art, music, and poetry. And look to hikers, farmers, sailors, birdwatchers, and athletes of all sorts who move their bodies in joy, not just to win. These people are into the wonder of sensory relationships, not concepts, not what they already know. They are all on the forefront of their lives, doing their best to appreciate and respond to the sensory patterns that dance in their minds. They are likely to have a more accurate take on reality than those who force meanings upon it, who live in worlds where knowing is more important than simply being who they are. If orthodox knowledge is power, stand clear of it. Follow new patterns wherever they lead; patterns are sure signs of life. Concepts are yesterday; percepts are right now.

If you must categorize, take your time. When you don’t, you might find yourself playing the role of a particle collider that creates a vacuum to ensure unstoppable forces coming from opposite directions meet head-to-head.

Heliocentrism

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(Copyright © 2009)

Here’s a look into another conscious mind beside my own, that of pianist Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division at the Boston Conservatory. The excerpt, used by permission, is from a welcome address he gave to parents of incoming students at the conservatory on September 1, 2004. My interest in presenting this piece is the undercurrent of musical consciousness echoing through these words.

~ ~ WHY MUSIC MATTERS ~ ~

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks . . . [who] said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the “Quartet for the End of Time” written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for the prisoners and guards of the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 a.m. to practice as was my daily routine. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome.” Lots of people sang “America the Beautiful.” The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece “Adagio for Strings.” If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s “Sonata,” which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this:

During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t under-stand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two a.m. someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 p.m. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the Nazi camps and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

NOAA Weather Radio is some of the best entertainment around. That is if you can stand the robot voices, endless repetitions, senseless scheduling, foolish long-range forecasts, and fallibility of the whole enterprise of trying to figure the weather one day in advance, much less an entire week. Here is exhibit A of trying to predict the future based on trends derived from past and current data—as if that tells the whole story.

 

I keep reminding myself the National Weather Service, like the fallen woman in the song, is more to be pitied than censured. Even so, it drives me crazy. I rely on it as little as possible. Which comes down to times when major storms are in the offing and I want all the information I can get to anticipate how it might impact my plans.

 

Take March 2nd of this year. Big snowstorm coming. I wanted to know if schools would be closed, because that would affect my adult ed class on Minding the Mind, which had already been postponed by a storm the week before. Yep, winter storm warning posted for coastal and interior Waldo County (the dire prospects repeated three times in succession in identical wording at a minute-and-a-half each), coastal and interior Hancock County, and Penobscot Valley. The Bar Harbor town horn sounded its three-blast school-cancellation notice. It was going to snow all day, with some sleet and freezing rain mixed in. I got a call that my class had been cancelled. OK, that was that.

 

Except it wasn’t. A few flakes fell in the morning, adding up to about an inch of new snow. Then it stopped. And stayed stopped. The storm must have veered away from the coast. But schools were closed, kids stayed home, parents had to make childcare arrangements if they wanted to go to work, and life went on despite the false warning.

 

Computers, like brains, can infer trends from past data and present conditions—but they cannot predict the future. They can only make an informed guess, which in this instance we call a forecast, as if computers could somehow see ahead. Which they can’t because, like the rest of us, they’re stuck in the here and now. With no sure way of knowing what they don’t know. Even if they had access to an infinite array of data points telling temperature, humidity, wind strength and direction, they still could not predict conditions at those data points based on anything but assumed probabilities, which opens the way to misjudging the amount of energy in the system one minute from now—and erroneous forecasts for any future point of interest.

 

On the other hand, weather forecasts based on an endless loop such as “Que sera, sera” wouldn’t cut it, either. “As God wills” would translate, we haven’t a clue. Maps provided by weather radar would be a big improvement in showing what’s happening around our area at the moment, leaving prognostications up to us as individuals. Tracking such images over time would provide a sense of how fast clouds are gathering, and the route they are taking across the landscape. Which is pretty much what the weather service does for us now, converting such evidence into a thoroughly annoying verbal report by a machine that has no idea what it is “talking” about, and no feedback loop for self-correction.

 

The brain works much the same way. Except it has a gazillion feedback loops within feedback loops, so it stays abreast of changing situations by updating itself every fraction of a second. Take performing or listening to music (both of which are every bit as complicated as the weather) as an example. In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain says the brain sorts sounds not only by tone, loudness, and duration, but by changes in tone, loudness, and duration. Auditory cortex then tracks the interrelations between sounds as they change both serially and simultaneously, integrating them to produce our subjective experience of music. Relations between simultaneous sounds (harmony) are tracked by auditory cortex in the right brain; relations between serial sounds (rhythm, melody) are tracked in the left brain, which also sequences individual speech sounds into words, phrases, and sentences (Harper Collins edition, pages 53-57).

 

In music consciousness (as in weather consciousness) what is happening now is placed in the context of what has come before. Music, that is, depends on working memory to keep the flux of individual notes “in mind” for several seconds to get the drift while, at the same time, attending to relationships between notes sounded simultaneously, integrating both dimensions to produce the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that, in combination over space and time, produce the music we are attending to at the moment (Jourdain, p. 57).

 

In music, predictions of what is to come arise from the ongoing flow of sound itself, or, if we are familiar with the piece, from our sense of having heard it before so we anticipate the directions and characteristics of what lies ahead. Listening to music has a decided advantage over forecasting the weather because we can never experience the same weather twice—storms may be similar, but never exactly the same. Modern recording technology allows us to experience identical repetitions of the same piece, or somewhat similar renditions by other performers—or by the same performer at other stages of her career.

 

In weather as in music, expectancy is the key to predicting the future. Our sense of what is to come stems from probabilities established through repetition of more-or-less similar events in the past, creating a range (envelope) of what we might expect this time around. Such expectancies exert a powerful hold on us, creating a kind of tension between memory and current sensory perception that leads us to pay close attention to how events develop and play themselves out in consciousness.

 

Here are a few examples of conscious expectancy at work. The last time I came this way that dog chased and tried to bite me; there it is again. Some years ago, my partner tripped on an innocent-looking rock on a trail in Acadia; every time she hikes the same trail she watches for that rock. Looking for eagles, I scan areas where I have seen them before. Having developed a recipe for gluten-free bread, I can now make it without even thinking about what I am doing, or convert it into pancakes, waffles, or cake topped with yogurt and maple syrup. In the current recession, President Obama looks to the example of what FDR did in the Great Depression of the 1930s for guidance on what to do in 2009.

 

The dynamic relationship between past and current events enables us to invent the future even though we’ve never been there before. Which works fine as long as circumstances haven’t changed all that much much. But one thing for sure, situations cannot ever be identical in different locations or two times in a row. A concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra outdoors at Tanglewood in summer with the humidity at 87% will differ significantly from the same program performed in Symphony Hall in winter with 26% humidity. Or perhaps the concert master is coming down with the flu. Novelty inevitably rears its head, so expectancy can never be borne out in exact detail.

 

So, sometimes schools are closed needlessly because storms do not materialize as predicted. Kids get a day off, and parents simply have to make ad hoc arrangements. Pity the poor weather service that called it wrong once again. But, too, in the next concert you go to the musicians may finally get it all together and pull off the greatest musical event of your life. Regardless of our expectations, consciousness is always an adventure. If we always knew what was going to happen beforehand, where’s the challenge or the fun in that?

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

 

When the first astronauts looked down on the Earth from space, they were less than articulate in telling what they saw. Wow! Look at that! is how I remember their spontaneous reports. They were all but speechless. I made fun of their puny descriptions then, but now I believe they were so unprepared for the experience of looking down on Earth from space that they were almost overwhelmed by the emotions that came over them. In ordinary life, our language for strong emotions often consists of four-letter words. When under stress, we find that the language of rational thought is largely irrelevant. Emotional language is more a matter of curses, sighs, cries, and moans.

 

Or memorized lyrics—as in songs, hymns, anthems, and such. On stage, actors can eloquently speak their emotions because they have memorized their lines. One of the most haunting moments in music took place at the 1928 Remembrance Day Ceremony in Albert Hall when assembled veterans of World War I sang, “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” a song they all knew by heart. No sound is bigger than those moving voices.

 

But the language of emotional consciousness, I now realize, is made more for action than sentimental songs. When it comes to expressing feelings, words are only incidental. Usually, big actions are called for, like hitting the line, running as fast as you can, or making love, not little actions like talking, knitting, or building model planes. Which gets to the core of why we have them. Emotions are tools of survival in threatening situations. The finer details of culture emerges only once we get past them and have time to simmer down and relax. Emotions are based on hormones secreted into the blood when we are under some sort of stress and need to make a quick response.

 

Depression, on the other hand, seems to be a squelching of emotion resulting from not being able to act because we are held back when our blood tells us to get going. Perhaps the best thing to do when we can do nothing appropriate to our situation is to shut down and wait. In such circumstances, temporary depression might make its own kind of sense. Long-term depression, however, as a symptom of long-term inaction can lead to utter hopelessness and collapse. Short term stress gets us going; long-term stress can be lethal.

 

All of which is a prelude to what I want to write about in this post. The aftermath of my earlier blog about music consciousness (see Reflection 38).

 

I am writing a blog about music consciousness. I want to dispense with program music that tells a story as something entirely different. Peter and the Wolf is a good example of the confusion we get into when words and music are mixed together, as in songs, operas, and oratorios. In those media it is hard to tell if felt responses stem from the music, the words, or both (or neither; maybe it’s the costumes and scenery). I am looking for an example of music accompanied by something other than words. Like dance. Like ballet. How about Swan Lake? What’s that dance for the four little swans? The four cygnets? Fifty-five years ago when I was at Columbia, dance had a strong hold on me. I went to performances of Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet almost every week. I met my first wife while waiting in line to get into Sadler’s Wells at the Met. I search for Swan Lake on the Web, and one of the early options comes up, Bolshoi Swan Lake – Pas de Quatre Small Swans. The very thing! I would have said Cygnets or Little Swans, but that’s Russian translators for you. I click the link—and there is a video of a Bolshoi production of the Dance of the Small Swans. I realize immediately that I can’t use ballet as an example because so much of the meaning of the piece is conveyed by the dancers—the visual impression—not the music. The video starts on its own. Suddenly I’m there, in New York watching the cygnets cavort 55 years ago. Same dark stage, same white costumes, same music, same steps—same me. I watch, transfixed. I don’t breathe for two minutes. What am I unleashing here? I clamp my lips to avoid blubbering. This is beauty, this is power. Pure grace. No, I don’t say the words—I feel the movement, the music. The magic. My rational mind is reduced to a series of clichés. Wow. Here is the world of sights, sounds, and expectancy I plunged into when I moved from Boston to New York in 1952 when I was twenty. I choke up. The video is almost too much. I am stunned. Transported. Why not let go? But I can’t. The tension is unbearable. I know the dance by heart. It’s been inside me all these years, and I never once acknowledged it. Never turned it loose. Watching the four dancers, I see myself being wholly myself, or wanting to be, but embarrassment clamps down on my emotional self. Steeling my lips so not to show my emotions. To whom? To me—I’m the only one around. I am of two minds, one rational, the other emotional. As if the two parts of me hadn’t lived together all these years and come to terms. One had to “win” and squelch the other. I see it all. When the video stops, I sit at my laptop, overwhelmed.

 

For me, this was a Proustian moment. But instead of regaining consciousness of the past by tasting a piece of madeleine (French almond cake) dipped in tea, as Proust’s protagonist did in Remembrance of Things Past, I found it by clicking a link on the Web—which burned a hole in my here-and-now mind through which the past leapt into the now.

 

I immediately felt a compelling shock of resonance between my consciousness then and my consciousness now. As if several different parts of my brain danced to the same tune. Music was involved, but sight and motion were kindled at the same time. I wasn’t just viewing the past, I was actually there. I pictured brain waves humming in resonance in every quarter of my mind, giving one another mutual feedback and support.

 

Reflecting on the experience, I think resonance is the key to the emotions I felt. The coordinated movements of the four dancers revealed a clear physical resonance echoing the music. Each dancer was her own person, yet was sympathetically linked to the other three. If their motions had been identical, they would have been robots. Holding hands, they moved in sympathy one with another. And I was with them the whole time, both my past and present selves, sharing in the discipline and the resonance.

 

Such states of resonance are a big part of consciousness. That’s how we learn, by being with others, watching, then imitating them as if reflecting their inner selves. We make fun of such imitative behavior, calling out, “monkey see, monkey do.” But we all play that game. Watch any two people in an intense conversation, each unconsciously mimicking the behavior of the other. I see it in myself. My partner crosses her arms, then so do I. I lean back in my chair, then so does she. We take turns being with others by translating their image into our posture. If we see it, we can do it. I feel sure that has a lot to do with feelings of closeness in families, friendships, and communities.

 

If you have doubts, take a look at the Beatles’ Hey Jude video on the internet. By the umteenth repetition of the chorus—“da, da, da, dadidada, dadidada, Hey Jude,” your brain waves will be synchronized with the band and their audience, and you will know exactly what resonance feels like. It’s O.K. to show emotions if body language tells you everybody else feels the same.

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