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

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

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

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

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

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sense of space results from our having to subtract our own motions to be sure of where we are in relation to objects in space, such as opposing players, bases, balls, and sidelines.

A sense of time results from viewing changes we are not responsible for—and so require no compensation on our part—as exemplified by the shifting hands of a clock, regular ticks of a metronome, sweeping shadow cast by the edge of a sundial aligned with Earth’s axis, complementary proportions of upper and lower reservoirs of fine white sand in an hourglass, or the looming approach of a ball hurled in our direction.

Scientists who claim to find time and space in the universe are casting their own abilities, perceptions, and cultural calibrations onto what they observe. Our customary senses of time and space work very well if we apply them consistently to personal observations within the normal range of conditions we are used to.

But projecting such observations—as Albert Einstein did in imaginative thought experiments that transcended the everyday conditions of his mind as cast not only into the universe but while traveling at the speed of light—is a very different matter. He meant his thoughts as goodwill ambassadors from Earth to the far reaches of unobservable space, but in so doing, he violated any conventional limitations imposed by our normal tolerance during extreme acceleration and deceleration in which he could only assume they held true, even while far exceeding any reasonable expectation for our bodily integrity under such conditions. After almost a century, judgments are still pending on whether spacetime is a helpful addition to our view and understanding of events in far space. As far as I am aware, the evidence in favor is not all that compelling.

Speaking of great leaps, it seems a far stretch to get from baseball to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But what I am pointing to is the very different skill sets opposed in offensive and defensive encounters in each play within each inning of each game of baseball.

Both teams may be in the same league, but the players are sure to be processing each play in a game from very different perspectives. Of course they are, being unique individuals trained and managed differently, and coming as they do from different cities and cultures.

All of which adds to the allure of baseball as a medium for individual players to truly express themselves in their own ways. And for fans to respond in kind. Baseball is no thought experiment. It is played in the minds of players and fans, but batters must hit the ball in real time, and fielders catch that same ball as it speeds through real space.

Fortunately for us, through practice and great effort, players get good at performing such acts under difficult conditions, and the rest of us genuinely enjoy the gripping engagements that result in our mindful experience of baseball.

The same can be said of our mindful experiences witnessing or participating in soccer, ballet, ballroom dancing, Olympic Games, cribbage, poker, chess, bird watching, mountaineering, sailing, cooking, dining, glass blowing, filmmaking, jazz, playing an instrument, singing, and all the other engagements that thrill us inside-out and make us glad to be alive in that space at that time.

Do I know what I am talking about? How do I know that I know what I think I know? I don’t believe I can know anything for sure. I make stabs in the dark based on situational insights and conjectures. What I have in this instance is a feeling. A sense of the texture of my thinking. Like fine sand on a shore darkened by the sweep of an incoming tide. I find that texture reassuring. It is more an aesthetic judgment, a sense of pleasing relationships shared during the run of ideas through my mind. In this case, ideas about baseball as played out in time and space.

I am speaking here of my sense of balance, harmony, unity, symmetry, and coherence at this moment. I am pushing that envelope of senses as far as I can in applying it to my experience of baseball. All the while gauging the fittingness of that envelope to my train of thought.

Space and time are two perspectives on change—change due to my own actions when I am in motion, change due to some other motive force when I am still. Both sorts of change calibrated in units agreeable to the culture I grew up in.

Space gives me a perspective on changes as I move about; time gives me a different perspective on changes that do not flow from what I am doing. In that sense, I make space happen around me by moving my body. Time happens to me as a response to changes taking place around me.

Two kinds of changes: changes I create by acting in the world; changes I perceive by the world acting on me. Two different segments of my ongoing loops of engagement. Self-changes; it-changes. Like the batter hitting the ball with his bat, or the fielder catching that same ball in his mitt while running and reaching, I switch from one perspective to the other. Often, while I am acting and perceiving at the same moment, I take the conjoined perspective of spacetime, a way of dealing simultaneously with two very different sorts of change at once.

In my next post I will extend this line of thought to my style of hiking. And question whether or not you recognize two different strategies for dealing with change in your personal experience.

To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.

424. Why Taunton Bay?

February 5, 2015

Why do members of a small, fringe band of horseshoe crabs live in cold, rocky Taunton Bay when they could be living it easy in Delaware Bay with its much warmer waters and sandy shores? Having monitored horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay for several years, then witnessing the horde of breeding crabs in Delaware Bay in 2005, I couldn’t help asking that question.

 

Horseshoe Crabs in Delaware Bay

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs on the Warm, Sandy Shores of Delaware Bay

Or, put differently, what draws horseshoe crabs to Taunton Bay in the first place? Why are they here?

I’d lived as a guest of Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point for several years after leaving my camp on Burying Island, and laid out a monitoring site divided into 10-meter sectors that wrapped around a point of exposed granite ledge and boulders where horseshoe crabs faithfully came ashore to breed every spring when water temperature reached 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius). Patches of sand and gravel were far between around the point, yet that was the soil the crabs needed to lay their eggs. The rest was ledge and fields of glacially-rounded cobbles and boulders.

 

Ledges in Taunton Bay

Ledges and Boulders at the High Tide Line in Taunton Bay

A common saying has it that horseshoe crabs breed in the light of the full moon in May. If that is true, what is it about the full moon that brings them to shore? Could it be the extra light at night? The gravitational pull when moon, sun, and Earth are lined up in syzygy?

In Taunton Bay, breeding horseshoe crabs show up in the daytime at high tide. The shore is so treacherous, I’ve never checked for them at night. But that seems to rule out the light of the moon as the spark that sets off the breeding season. And at full moon, the tide is low at 6:00 a.m. and p.m., high at noon (and midnight), or an hour-and-a-half later in Taunton Bay due to the constriction at Tidal Falls.

 

High-tide line, Butler Point.

Rocky Shores of Butler Point Where Horseshoe Crabs Come to Breed.

It makes more sense to me that water temperature reaching the threshold of 56 degrees is what brings the crabs ashore to lay their eggs. And that the moon’s effect is in drawing an incoming tide over flats and rocks and ledges warmed by the morning sun, sharing the sun’s heat with the water as the tide rises, so warming the water to a maximum at high tide, when the crabs come ashore to breed for a period of a couple of hours.

In my thinking, breeding crabs are attracted to particular sites by the heat given off by sun-warmed ledges and boulders, then imparted to incoming tidal waters, and has nothing to do with the sparsity of suitable breeding habitat, which the crabs find by relentlessly searching and digging wherever they go along their favored breeding sites, no matter how ledgy and stony.

 

High Tide Line, Egypt Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Love the Warm Waters that Cover These Stones & Ledges.

Other horseshoe crab breeding sites in Maine feature sandier shores than does Taunton Bay, where the crabs are hardy enough to eke out a living under stern local conditions in spite of short summers, cold waters, and harsh habitats.

What Taunton Bay does have to offer is two shallow sub-embayments, Egypt Bay and Hog Bay, where incoming waters are warmed by sunlight falling on mudflats and ledges from low tide to high, briefly achieving warm conditions such as are a regular feature of Delaware Bay much farther south where millions of crabs breed on an annual basis.

 

Horseshoe crab breeding habitat, Taunton Bay

Horseshoe Crabs Eke Out the Gravel Between These Boulders & Ledges.

That is my hypothesis, achieved by observing and thinking about why horseshoe crabs have established an outlying population this far to the north of their usual spawning grounds across the world. I offer this as an example of my ongoing engagement with horseshoe crabs. They have established a beachhead in my consciousness, and I carry them everywhere I go, thinking about issues they raise on sleepless nights, dwelling on the predicaments they face, wondering why, against all odds, they cling to two exceptional habitat areas in Taunton Bay.

You might well ask, Who cares? I can only reply, I, for one. Because I engage horseshoe crabs on a daily basis, and have made them part of my life by paying attention to them for much of my time on this Earth. Our regular engagements become parts of our lives because so firmly rooted in our minds through our frequently acting and perceiving in unity.

By engaging, we make lives for ourselves. Those lives are what we are. Each different by nature and by passionate engagement. As we are expectant, observant, attentive, and active, so do we become. No two the same.

Me, I’m taken with horseshoe crabs, eelgrass, rockweed, deep woods, rowing, walking, hiking, and similar natural activities and engagements with my home planet. And now with consciousness as my basic tool for conducting those engagements. As you are taken by the aspects of that same planet as they affect you and draw out your lifetime engagements.

So are we all, products of the lives we actually lead, because those lives are in our minds to live out as we do. We can’t help it. That is our destiny. To be ourselves because it is beyond our abilities to be anyone else.

My tracking horseshoe crabs in Taunton Bay soon took over my mind. I did my best to think like a horseshoe crab in figuring out which way it had gone from where I’d last heard its signal. As my skills improved over the months, I got pretty good at keeping track of them day-by-day on their separate excursions. But, too, I kept losing them.

Sometimes there would be intervals of several days between tracking sessions due to wind and weather, leading me to become pretty much a fair-weather tracker. As a result I’d lose sight of the ones I’d been following, and had to make a fresh start when I’d next get out on the bay.

We expected the transmitter batteries to run down after two years, but we got a good part of a third tracking season (2005) out of them before they finally died (the batteries, not the crabs, which can live for about twenty years in the wild).

I was surprised to learn how passionate I became about following twenty-six individual crabs in their travels about the bay. I quickly became truly engaged in the project. I cared about finding each crab and I’d worry when I lost track of it. I’d go searching for it until I (sometimes) found it again or got the feeling I’d lost it forever.

My engagement led me to try to connect with each crab. To put myself in its place as if I were the traveler on the bottom trying to figure where to go next. To do that I had to have a good sense of the terrain, the currents, the temperature gradients, the mussel and eelgrass beds—the entire habitat area beneath me that I couldn’t see, but could imagine at high tide while tracking because of my earlier experiences in the same area when the tide was low.

Engagements are a two-way street. If I wanted to hear from my select population of horseshoe crabs, I’d have to pay attention to them. To put myself out there on the bottom where they were. I’d have to make room for their concerns in my agenda. To do that, I’d have to learn to think like horseshoe crabs think. To understand the motives that guided their travels.

Was that possible, or was that my conceit? Well, if I pushed myself, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t tracking for my benefit but for theirs. I had their best interests at heart. Or so I told myself. I’m doing this for you, dear one. And for you, and for you.

I think what I was getting at was a sense of commitment. Not duty to my job, but commitment to another species entirely that happened to live near me. An outlying population of a species that humans could put at risk out of carelessness, out of not knowing where they were or what they needed to survive.

After all, for many years people had shoveled horseshoe crabs into piles to use as fertilizer. Or conch bait. Even some Native Americans put horseshoe crabs under the squash and corn they planted, sacrificing the crabs for the betterment of their crops.

But I felt moved to connect with the crabs I was tracking, to help them thrive. As they had thrived for almost half-a-billion years on their own without my caring assistance. I felt an intimate kinship with horseshoe crabs, and admired the beauty and graceful functionality of their bodies. They can swim legs-down or legs-up, pushing ahead by pumping their gills back and forth. They can walk on the bottom, dig in muddy or sandy sediments, eat bountiful small mollusks, and fight infection with copper-based blood that congeals to heal wounds. They are proven survivors adapted to estuary habitats, largely unchanged for some 400 million years.

My mind goes out to horseshoe crabs, and every sighting thrills me head-to-toe. Being of such ancient design and so beautiful, they have an undying claim on my attention. I am caught in the spell of their attractiveness, and because I will never be able to understand them, there will always be that discrepancy urging me on to further engagements with members of their august species.

I respond by being with them and interacting however I can: tracking their travels, monitoring their breeding populations, photographing them, making PowerPoint presentations to sensitize others to their presence among us, sharing my respect and enthusiasm. I have an extensive library on horseshoe crabs, and samples of their shed shells on the shelves and walls in my apartment. I surround my nest with reminders that they exist in my presence.

Because of my several engagements with them, they have become fixtures in my daily life. And because of the incongruity with other features of my experience, they introduce a sense of discrepancy or discontinuity that prods my consciousness into full wakefulness so that I pay attention to their tenuous placement in the modern world.

That alerting discrepancy makes all the difference in my including horseshoe crabs in the scope of my daily concern and attention. That is why I have tracked them, read about them, traced their line of descent from trilobites, and photograph them every chance I get. Discrepancy is the spark that ignites into allure, inviting me out of my sheltered mind into the world. Even if I am not very good at tracking horseshoe crabs, I have felt compelled to improve.

Horseshoe crabs and eelgrass meadows call me in that way, as do hermit thrushes, song sparrows, fairy webs, and old man’s beard. It isn’t what I understand that makes my world; it’s what I don’t know because it is just beyond my reach. Without novelty, beauty, allure, disparity, and surprise, engagement reduces to habit, and mindless habits eat away the wonder of being alive and alert to discrepancy.

In a very real sense, I am possessed by horseshoe crabs, and as a result, have become possessive of them in return. The root of ownership is in just that sense of possession through engagement. Engagement makes a claim on my attention. Engagement works both ways. I “own” what I engage with, and it owns my interest and attention.

The circle of engagement is complete. Perception leads to action leads to engagement leads back to perception. I have earlier compared that situation to the image of the ancient serpent Uroborus biting its own tail. The point being that such gripping engagement unites its parts into a unitary whole.

Devoted engagement brings its separate elements together into a single event. I am part of horseshoe crab existence in Taunton Bay by tracking their every move; they, in turn, become an integral part of my experience by changing the mind at the core of my being.

No wonder we get possessive of who or what we engage with. Our experience binds us together, and our experience becomes part of our minds, enriching us, making us part of a larger whole. As integral parts of my experience in nature, horseshoe crabs become aspects of my identity. Together, in my mind, we become joined together as an item. We are openly engaged, with all the emotional attachment that implies.

421. Watersheds

February 2, 2015

Watersheds are land basins that often contain large amounts of soil. Soil, by definition, is porous. It consists of particles of rock and organic material nestled more-or-less closely together (more closely in the case of clayey soils, less in sandy or gravely ones). Spaces between particles invite water to flow in-and-around them, picking up air and dissolved nutrients and minerals, which that underground water conveys to thirsty roots and microbes on its relentless journey downslope toward the ocean.

The early stages of that journey do not take place across the land so much as within it, by winding routes between soil particles of remarkable complexity leading on to more and more of the same. We are fascinated by the wonder of ocean depths and outer space, while the wonder of the soil beneath our feet eludes us. The French peasant who held up a clod of soil from his field and exclaimed (in translation), “This is France!” had it almost right. He might have said, “This is life!”

The local transport system of individual plants is an extension of the watershed in which it grows. Powered by evaporation through the surface of leaves, a lifting force draws water taken in from damp soil upward into the presence of chlorophyll, where it intercepts energy from the sun, ionizes, and frees a hydrogen ion that triggers the process leading to the production of glucose—a form of sugar containing energy in a form plants can use for maintenance, growth, repair, reproduction, and defense.

With roots in the soil, leaves in the air, vascular plants such as trees have the best of both worlds. If they were not able to rise aboveground to spread their leaves in the sun, or able to draw water up to those leaves, plants would exist only in areas where water, air, and sunlight come together at ground level—humid places such as where nonvascular plants like mosses and liverworts grow in glens and at the bases of cliffs, or in bright and shallow wetlands, streams, and ponds.

But by enabling the aerial, sunlit world of wind and leaves to combine with the dark, subterranean watery world of soil and roots, plants bring two aspects of a watershed together, the upper and lower, light and dark, in a way that radically expands the biosphere’s potential for growth, producing the lush world of sap, fruit, seeds, and leaves where every meadow vole, weasel, hawk, person, fungus, and bacterium lives today.

Plants are the creator of this modern world, and watersheds throughout the biosphere are their patrons, mentors, supporters, and protectors.

In a very real sense, brains, too, are watershed extensions, elaborate expressions of damp soils and sunlight. They take in energy from two sources, food (including drink), and sensory or molecular stimulation through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Food fuels bodily life-support processes, sensory stimulation provides the signal that activate the components of consciousness such as perception, memory, understanding, meaning, thought, judgment, and subsequent behavior.

Sensory stimulation sends ions across brain cell boundaries, causing currents to pulse toward axon terminals, where neurotransmitters carry those signals to others next in line, creating sensory patterns of activation and inhibition that spread across groups of neurons, and those patterns can be compared point-for-point with other patterns, creating consonant or dissonant signals, such as those that provoke consciousness.

Consciousness, then, is an extension of the engagement between a mind and the watershed that provides it not only with life, but patterned sensory stimulation in addition. To even partially understand consciousness, we must consider the life-sustaining environment in which it occurs, the patterned stimuli impinging on the senses within that environment, as well as the actions with which particular minds respond to that evocative sensory stimulation, so constituting a particular engagement between our minds and their surrounding worlds.

In my thinking, a mind interprets or translates patterned sensory stimulation as a situation laden with meaning in light of previous experience (sensory stimulation such as one or two lanterns shining from a tower is not meaningful in itself), and organic intelligence in that situation judges what response to make that would be most appropriate to that (perhaps unique) situation.

Minds, then, convert watersheds, sensory signals, and actions into meaningful life situations, and it is those interpreted situations that minds respond to, not watersheds, signals, or actions in themselves. We all develop repertories of situations we are familiar with, and courses of action to take in responding to just that range of situations. Our world at any given time is a construct composed of such situations as delimited by their specific mix of dimensions to which our intelligence responds, the situation serving as the psychic environment standing in for the “real” environment consisting of watershed, stimulation, and appropriate action.

I assume that watershed, sunlight, and gravity contribute to the context within which consciousness exists in the natural world. In watershed I include a sense of the natural resources available in a given situation. In sunlight I include climate, weather, season, wind, and other natural phenomena. In gravity I include the unstated but assumed background of forces to be dealt with, including mental habits, routines, rituals, prejudices, and other psychic influences.

If I were to hold up a clod of soil today, I might well say, “This is consciousness!”

I carry on like this because I think we often overlook the natural influences that affect everyday consciousness and behavior. Even in a cubicle in a skyscraper in a modern city, we depend on water and food that undoubtedly come from watersheds we may not be aware of. Without such unacknowledged watersheds, urban civilization would not exist, as ancient Rome would not have existed without its roads, baths, and aqueducts. Such hidden dimensions of experience are implicit in our modern-day engagements with artificial intelligence, the internet, drone strikes, and covert security operations.

In a very real sense, modern consciousness rests on basic factors such as watersheds that many of us are oblivious to, yet support our minds in everything we do. To the extent that we might mindlessly undermine those natural factors, such unstated assumptions pose a potential danger to our well-being and security.

413. The Life Force

January 23, 2015

Whether we keep watch on the world or on our inner life, we employ the same mental equipment. I call that equipment our situated intelligence. Situated in the sense of always being in our heads under the particular conditions that make up our awareness at the moment.

So in switching my focus in this blog from my inner world of perception-judgment-action to my outer world of nature-culture-community-family, I the watcher am still the same conscious being, relying on the same mental energy and equipment, facing the same difficulties in making sense of what is before me.

This view runs counter to our everyday assumption that when we open our eyes, we look out on the world as it truly is. But no, we don’t live in any such privileged position. Always, always, always we peer out from the depths of our psychic intelligence as situated in one fix or another.

We cannot escape ourselves or our current perspectives. We live in our minds, not our physical bodies in their various physical settings. Even if we look upon the Gulf of Aqaba or Grand Teatons, we look from within the same old intelligent self that is referenced to the same old memories we truck with us wherever we go.

It is forbidden us to walk in anyone else’s moccasins; we are stuck in our own footwear wherever we go. Our ever-changing situations are in our minds, not the world.

As I have repeatedly said, those situations are made up of the psychic dimensions that affect us at the moment. Those dimensions may include a varied mix of imagination, impressions, values, understanding, emotions, memories, aesthetics, beliefs, ideas, attitudes, interests, expectancy, attention, habits, ideology, prejudice, life experience, motivation, and what I call the life force with which our metabolisms drive us to perceive, judge, and act.

That is my credo. The belief derived from thirty years of personal introspection. My reality, the frame of mind that I live in every moment I work on this blog.

The point I want to make in this post is that the fuel that drives our personal life force does not differ whether we are focused on our inner or outer worlds. No matter where we are, we are the same person driven by the same force.

Most people I know do not believe that. They believe in forces speaking to them from the heavens. Mystical forces. Spiritual forces. Forces out of the blue. But awareness of any such force is securely seated inside us, and I would say is projected outward by mistake when it is deep within our most basic awareness all the time.

Even the splendor of the stars at night is within us, because that is how we take those stars in, the climate in which we reach out to them and receive them in that very splendor, as our personal life force drives us to receive them.

I am saying that our individual portion of the life force drives us to respond to our thoughts and perceptions in certain life-fulfilling ways. That force is always positive, urging us to make the most of the moment, to be fully aware, to seize the moment by making the most of ourselves.

The splendor of the sky stems from our native susceptibilities and sensitivities, which we bring with us as carried along by the life force we bear in every cell in our bodies. The spirit we see all around us is the spirit we bring with us to be released on such occasions.

Our metabolisms derive our life energies from the simple food we eat every day. Spirit rises from that energy in preparing to meet the adventures and challenges we may face on any given occasion.

Once in our cells, that energy is ours to respond to, to direct, to express in our every action. It is that energy that lightens our step as we go, heightens our spirits, lifts us above the cares of life so that we can thrive in good health with an attitude that reaches out to our every engagement with our world.

The life force is world energy made ours. It is sunlight brought to life. First in our food, then in us. In our wayfaring, it is the fuel that drives us in taking step after step, always anticipating the view we will have around the next bend, across the next river, from the peak of the next mountain.

It is we who respond to the message our situated intelligence translates into the language of our personal behavior. How we address the world in making our rounds day-after-day tells who we are. Our share of the life force is ours alone to use, direct, and express. It is the resource that gets us through the day, no matter what happens. Its source may be the sunlight that reaches the Earth, but its power is within us as a reservoir of energy we can release in our daily activities.

In writing this blog, I am driven by my share of the life force derived from sunlight striking the Earth and transmitted to me in the food I eat. In reading this blog, you are driven by your share of sunlight stored in your personal reservoir. Together, we are guided in our actions by our respective reservoirs of the life force.

Yesterday, my partner said that she appreciates the spiritual support she discovers in life by seeking guidance in her daily activities. “It feels like the spirit is on my side,” she said movingly. I responded that that guidance is already within her, and is hers to respond to as she will. My point being that each of us is responsible for directing our activities for good or for ill. It is not some external spirit that guides us, but our own inner vision, fueled by our share of the life force.

May that force live within you.

 

410. Outer Reaches of Mind

January 20, 2015

Engagement is a crucial concept in my approach to consciousness. I use it in almost every post. But what does it mean to me when I use it?

We each have an inner life of the mind and an outer life in the world around us. The inner life begins with perception and consists largely of what we make of incoming sensory impressions, as well as judgment upon what we take those impressions to mean against the background of our experience.

That inner life leads from judgment to outgoing action in the world as our response to previous incoming impressions.

The inner life of the mind from perception to judgment and on to appropriate action makes up half the story of consciousness. The outer half is what happens in the world as a result of our taking the actions we do throughout the day.

That outer half of consciousness narrates how the world responds to what we did and, equally important, relays that response to us so that we can grasp the effects of our actions. Which we do by comparing that incoming response against our outgoing intentions in order to gauge the effectiveness of what we did.

That comparison generates what I call a delta signal in our brains that tells us whether or not we accomplished our earlier mission. If the delta signal bears a positive tone, it tells us we are on the right track. If that feedback is negative, we interpret it as telling us to try harder, or take a different approach.

What we are conscious of in such a loop of engagement is precisely the delta signal that bridges the gap between what we tried to do and what actually happened. That is, consciousness depicts and assesses the high and low points of the relationship between our inner self and the world around us. It tells us by way of the feeling within us whether we are happy or sad, glad or mad. In light of our intentions, happy is good news, sad is bad news.

That psychic relationship is what I mean by engagement. It prompts awareness of what we did in comparison with what actually happened, and stimulates an affective response to guide us in making our next move.

Consciousness is the inner venue where that awareness takes place, including the crucial feeling tone accompanying that awareness.

Given what I have just written, with this post to my blog I change my focus from the inner world of perception-judgment-action that has occupied my preceding posts to consider what it is in the outer world that we engage with. From now on I will be taking on the other half of consciousness, the half that does not reside in our brains, and cannot be found there no matter how hard or long we may search for it. We may discover our view of the world, but not the world as it is in itself, which is our partner in engagement.

To help you picture the many partners we might engage with in completing the outer half of our personal consciousness, I ask you to visualize the following maps all superimposed on one another.

  1. A map of the GPS locations of every cellphone in the world.
  2. A map of all the roads, highways, and byways in the world.
  3. A map of all the sea lanes across the oceans of the world.
  4. A map of all the flight paths between all the airports in the world.
  5. A map of all the server farms supporting the internet throughout the world.
  6. A map of all the capital cities of the many countries in the world.
  7. A map of all the grains of sand on the surface of the beaches of the world.
  8. A map of all the catalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  9. A map of all the uncatalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  10. A map of all the trees in the world.
  11. A map of all the postal codes in the world.
  12. A map of all the street addresses in the world.
  13. A map of all the country and area codes in the world.
  14. A map of all the TV and radio stations in the world.
  15. A map of all the places where photographs have been taken in the world.

That massive skein of the sorts of places we might engage with in one lifetime of consciousness is surely a complementary match for the most complex system we know of in the universe—namely, the human brain.

My focus in this blog now shifts from the makeup of individual minds to the engagements we actually or potentially might make with the world in one lifetime. My aim is to suggest the other half of consciousness that does not reside in our heads, but is ours to selectively engage with at any time.

Action is the payoff: demonstrable proof of the mind. It is how we move ourselves ahead from one moment to the next. Initiating a process I call “wayfaring” as our mode of being in the world by means of taking one step after another. Getting ahead is our religion and our profession. It is not a product but a process as told in the playing, not the winning or losing.

The issue is always: What now? What next? What next after that? In other words, threads of engagement. By which we exercise our perceptive and active skills as joined by the judgments we make and the meanings we find in the process of advancing the flow of energy through our minds from perception to action.

My focus on action ends with a glimpse at sex as one act we all share in common. I have reviewed the route within the figurative black box sheltering each of our minds, from arousal, expectancy, and attention on to the formation of sensory impressions, recognition, categorization, to meaningful understanding.

Then I have traced the various routes that connect perception to action via reflexes, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, and orthodoxy, all of which bypass full conscious deliberation and awareness. Consciousness centers on the mediating faculty of mind I call “situated intelligence” that create the situations we face in their various mental dimensions such as I have listed throughout these posts. Those dimensions include understanding, imagination, emotion, biological values, ethical values, ideas, thoughts, the life force that drives us, and the many contributions of remembrance.

Consciousness answers three questions. Perception fields the question, “What’s happening?” Judgment fields, “What does that mean in my current situation?” Action gives our answer to, “What shall I do under these circumstances?”

These three stages of mental engagement also entail unconscious loops within the brain that shape, sharpen, and emphasize aspects of the mind’s ongoing engagement with the world for the sake of clear judgment in forming an appropriate response to the situation we find ourselves in at the moment. Each action we make leads on to the next moment, setting up the one after that.

Our situated intelligence forms what we think of as the durable “I/me” at the juncture of perception and action where our sequential rounds of engagement come to completion as staging areas for the cycles to follow—hopefully with increasing refinement.

The self is no independent observer of that flux; it is the ongoing flow of engagement itself, the inner wayfarer at the heart of our being active, alert, and alive.

In the following posts, my task becomes that of extending the inner portions of our loops through perception, judgment, and action beyond the figurative—yet functional—walls of the black boxes in which our minds are sheltered by the outer limits of the bodily membrane or skin that separates our inner personhood from the great world beyond.

In that outer world we find our way along the shores of a world ocean much as our one-celled ancestors swam in the primal, energy-rich seas of ancient Earth. We take what we need to live from that ocean, in trade for our waste. I divide that world ocean into the four great bays which we explore during our life travels: nature, culture, community, and family.

Those divisions of the world ocean conduct the waves we make by our outgoing gestures to far shores, where they reflect and return to us in flowing waveforms of energy representing four aspects or levels of the world’s response to our actions. Which we study from the perspective of our personhood and life experience, interpret, and transform into our next round of engagement.

The world ocean is the basis on which our consciousness is founded. We exist to interpret its messages as accurately as we can. So do we place ourselves in the situations that drive us forward. Consciousness is not ours alone. We share our interpretive abilities with the stimuli striking our senses from the ambient in which we live. We are creatures not merely of our brains, but of our home planet. We are Earthlings to the core.

On to the worlds of nature, culture, community, and family!