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.

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In general, the evidence provided by seeing with our own eyes is pretty shaky. Check out any police line-up. All Blacks may look alike to Whites because blackness is all we need to know in order to place a fellow human into the category we want her to fit, overlooking the overwhelming evidence of the fullness of her humanity.

It takes concentrated effort to avoid making that error. And for Blacks to avoid the same error looking the other way into our white faces. Simpleminded shortcuts to categorization cut human awareness off at the neck, they are acts of such violence.

In my Army unit, being one of the four tallest members qualified me for being a squad leader. In my squad the soldier next to me was the fifth tallest, the blackest man I had ever seen. He was so black, I couldn’t make out his features at all, only the whiteness of his eyes and teeth. His face was always in the shadows.

After several months of living in close quarters with him, I found that most of his darkness had drained away and he’d become a human being, not a Black man. It’s strange how that works. It wasn’t that his skin was black so much as that my mind was white from lack of social experience (as my skin is white from lack of exposure to sunlight), and I didn’t know it.

In that sense, the Army was a great leveler in mixing Blacks and Whites and Latinos and Asians together, giving a good shake of shared experience, and letting the results speak for themselves. Putting young men and women together in college dorms and the military doesn’t work as well because hormones give us a primal agenda that takes a long time to recast as the will of mature, consenting adults.

The demons that haunt our political campaigns are not there at the focus of the advertisements hurled at us as Election Day nears. We know those claims are false (or are at best overdrawn) because we similarly exaggerate the polarity of our own likes and dislikes to maintain their focus at the heart of our consciousness, but we keep forgetting our own fibs and distortions when it is inconvenient to own-up to them in mixed company.

Though stars in general may not have much meaning for us, we all do have a favorite star in our neighborhood, and that is the sun, a star that truly makes a difference in our lives as Earth’s source of radiant energy, and source of gravitational energy that gives us a place to hang our hats in the “universe.”

The sun isn’t like other stars in being, for practical purposes, minimally worthy of notice. To the contrary, at some seasons the sun beams down on us with so much heat and light that it forces itself on our attention, and we seek shelter from its direct rays.

At opposite seasons, when lower in the sky, the sun is often thrust into our awareness by its shyness, and we wish it would be more forceful than it is. But even given its seasonal variability, the sun is far brighter to the eye than other stars, and hotter, and apparently moving so fast through the sky that we feel compelled to keep track of it with our clocks, watches, sundials, and digital devices. In a very real sense, we want to know where it is at all hours so we can set our lives to its schedule.

That is some star. A star to hitch your life to. A star to rise and shine by every day. Without sunlight, plants wouldn’t exist, animals wouldn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist. There, now, is a star that has meaning. Without it, meaning wouldn’t exist because our minds wouldn’t exist.

The sun is implicit in the meaning of meaning, in every one of the dimensions of human awareness and intelligence. Without it, those dimensions would be unimaginable. With it, they become possible.

When we do notice other stars and heavenly bodies, it is often their variability that draws our attention. We notice the comings and goings of comets across the sky, meteors and periodic meteor showers, supernovas suddenly blazing forth where no star was seen before, then fading away.

Too, we notice full and partial eclipses of sun and moon, alignments of planets with bright stars and other planets, phases of the moon as sunlight strikes its surface at different angles as seen from our point of view. And the seasonal journeys of stellar constellations, those apparent groupings of stars we find sufficiently familiar to identify by name: Orion, Sagittarius, Libra, Cassiopeia, Pleiades, Cygnus, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Southern Cross, among others.

To my mind, it is changes in the aesthetic arrangement of the stars that invites them into our attention and gives them much of their meaning. They are not fixtures after all, but sensory phenomena in our minds that are subject to change.

What we call fixed stars are fixed in the sense of their unchanging relations one to another, not in relation to us. Indeed, they appear to move across the sky every day, but en masse, as a well-disciplined flock, preserving their relative positions in the herd, never wandering, never getting lost or out of line.

We know now that that seemingly harmonious sweep of the stars is not their doing at all but ours in revolving beneath them and orbiting the sun through the seasons. It is Earth’s twofold motion, not the stars above moving in an orderly parade. But for most of human history (and all of prehistory), people have been convinced that the stars themselves moved together on well-ordered paths across the sky.

And it was the presumed source of that orderly pattern of motion that gave meaning to the stars as disciplined lights subject to a fundamental rule of the “universe” (which means one-turning, even though the stars aren’t turning at all; it is we Earthlings who are moving, projecting our ill-considered impressions onto the stars).

“Universe” is a misnomer. A mistake. A fundamental error of misconception. What we mean by “the universe,” then, doesn’t truly exist. It is not at all what we once thought it was. Yet the word persists on our English-speaking tongues, and has meaning for even scientists and theologians, who both know better, but in this instance stick to the same outdated habit.

 

My contention in this blog is that I, you, we all play the same game. We are smoothers-over to suit ourselves. We can’t help it, our auxiliary loops of perceptual adjustment and refinement do the work for us in the name of clarity, good contrast, and proper emphasis. To a man, to a woman, we are biased toward our own predilections, the teachings of our personal life experience.

Far beyond Dr. Roget’s influence, the evidence is all around us in the polarities with which we apprehend the world. In the military battles, political in-fighting, religious strife, business practices, sporting contests, artistic preferences, social engagements, entertainments, literary tastes—we know what we like, like what we know, and dispense with the rest.

Our minds work in ways that are almost as pat as that. As set according to our gleanings from the survival niches we have sowed and harvested up until now. We are self-made in ways we hardly suspect because we filter our own interests out of our engagements, seeing those of our partners with far greater clarity than we do our own—almost as if our interests played no part in our dealings with the world.

As if our personal meanings were accurate, just, and true, while the unmeanings of those we engage with are no more than scrabble, scribble, scrawl, and daub.

I am certain that Dr. Roget never recognized such a state of affairs in his own mind. How could he have? He was convinced that he was writing about states of affairs in the world, not in his mind. As scientists filter out their very standpoints as trained scholars in dealing with a supposedly objective universe of pure events happening within reach of their instruments of observation. As the Pope is considered to be infallible in his judgments as referee of all proper human engagements. As politicians paint their opponents as caricatures, themselves as noble knights in armor. As Buddhists avoid human suffering by declaring the individual self to be a mere construct, so how can anyone suffer in a mind focused on nothingness?

Without our knowing, the answers we seek are contained in the questions we ask. We don’t want the truth; we want affirmation of our proprietary truth as only our loyal prejudgments can deliver it. The ones we recognize as familiar because they are already within us, safe from harm in our very own black boxes, where they are part and parcel of any effort we might make to engage the world beyond our perimeter.

Talk about self-interest, we can’t live without it, which puts everyone we interact with at a disadvantage in being respectively self-interested in their own welfare. If we weren’t self-ish to the core, without a fairy godmother, we wouldn’t survive for one day. So we tilt the playing field in our favor, and do just fine on the basis of foregone conclusions that aren’t conclusions at all but unquestionable axioms of personal faith.

Who could imagine discovering such an outrageous position backed up by no less an authority than Dr. Peter Mark Roget? I, for one. Lone wayfarer that I am in hot pursuit of any secrets my mind might be holding back. I identify with Roget in having a lifelong interest in the workings and foibles of my own mind.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of the very ideas I am talking about in this blog. I may be only one authority, but I certainly serve in that office for the only mind I have access to. As you yourself serve in that capacity in service of your own mind.

I am trying to provoke you into examining your credentials for holding that office. Are you as fair and impartial as you believe and maintain? Can any of us be that fair? Can we seriously believe we are rational beings in any sense of the word?

Rather than dissolve the constructs that bind us together as conscious beings, I truly believe our best option is to get to know ourselves without the self-support system that comes with the territory of being an earnest and well-meaning person.

I think we can work around that inherent support system by regarding ourselves as if we were total strangers, and had no power to edit the data on which our conclusions are based. Yes, we can see ourselves with new eyes, hear ourselves with new ears, correct our self-image by including the very data we’ve been suppressing for all of these years.

A priori, we are neither good nor bad. We are what we are, wayfarers on a minor planet for a brief instant in the history of the universe. Imagine going to our deaths not knowing who we are. What we have truly accomplished, and at what cost to others and to our home planet.

It is never too early to take stock, and to keep taking stock for the rest of our travels. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to get to know ourselves before we inflict unwitting harm on others, believing all the while we are blameless.

Facing into myself, that is my project in this blog. No one can do it for me. The buck stops with me. As it does with each one of us. If we don’t respectively rise to that challenge, we know that no one else ever will. We are born to that challenge. It comes with being human. If we don’t take it on, can we truly claim to have lived, or claim to have lived truly, being stuck in the darkness within our personal black boxes for the duration of our lives?

Thank you, Peter Mark Roget, for unwittingly reflecting that wisdom back onto your readers, if only we would take effort to follow the line of thinking you set before us in your work as a light shining on how our minds might be organized.

The moral being: that everything we notice from our privileged position sheds light on our minds if we will but look for that hidden message.

Mindfully play and watch baseball; mindfully pore through Roget’s Thesaurus; two down—mindfully ogle the stars yet to come, starting with my next post.

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.

465. Roget’s Thesaurus

March 24, 2015

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

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,

classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas

and assist in Literary Composition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

446. For My Eyes Only

March 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

Beyond serving as citizens of four great worlds at once (nature, culture, community, family), in the end each of us stands on her own legs as his own unique person. So many factors make up our identities, no other person on Earth has a mind like the one in our private, mysterious, and, yes, figurative black box.

In that sense, each one of us is an experiment to see what we can make of the gifts the universe sends our way. Since evolution cannot predict what fixes we will get ourselves into, it gives us the makings of a mind we can fashion into the very one we need to serve our widely varying purposes.

It is hard to tease out the separate influences of nature, culture, community, or family, so it is easier for us take responsibility for ourselves as agents in charge of our own perceptions, judgments, behaviors, and engagements as a result of the lives we actually lead. We can apply this approach to whatever level of activity we are operating on at the time.

This does not make evolution into some kind of genius with universal forethought. Rather, reliance on personal consciousness works for us today because it was the only thing that worked in earlier stages of our species’ development. What works, works; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Those who fit the former case will survive, the latter die off. Evolution is that efficient, and that blunt.

So here we are, standing on the shoulders of countless past survivors who in turn met the challenges of their times. As we offer our shoulders to those who come after us. We can’t necessarily provide the support our descendants will need, but at least we can offer what we have in the form of the lives we actually lead.

Which raises a question. What rules of engagement with the natural world might be appropriate for us to live by in working toward a more secure future for the extended family of Earthlings that will follow our faint tracks? Certainly Love your mother is good advice, but no one yet has found a way to forge that advice into a firm rule.

I’ll settle for: Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe. That ought to cover it. Don’t just do as I say, but do what you feel is appropriate in your individual case. And please note that in “our” I include every Earthling of all species.

Think in terms of a water cycle that includes rain and snow, wetlands, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, oceans, and ocean currents, not just your minute portion of such a cycle. Think in terms of watersheds, not political boundaries. Think in terms of natural processes, not products. Think in terms of habitats and ecosystems, not places on a map. Think in terms of quality of life for all species, not just your amassing a fortune in money or possessions. What you “have” is a life in progress, not what we now would call a personal possession. Life is one thing we may have but cannot own.

Could we ever learn to be conscious in such terms? I’ll put it like this: if we can’t, then we’re not long for this Earth. The signs are all around us. Ebola is a clear example of how infectious diseases will thrive among our overpopulated and overcrowded living conditions in the future. It will be with us from now on. ISIS is an example of what will happen if we base our behavior on selectively narrow cultural beliefs instead of a true understanding of the workings of the natural world. And AI (artificial intelligence) is an example of what the corporate-commercial parody of intelligence leads to as a substitute for the authentic intelligence we will need to guide each one of us as an agent of personal freedom and understanding.

My long study of my own mind leads me to entertain such thoughts. We are in this world together, each playing our part in preparing the future of life on Earth. The trends I have pointed to above suggest where we, together, are heading. Taking our planet hostage as we go.

I firmly believe we can do better. And that doing better is up to us as conscious individuals who take responsibility for the lives we lead, not as mindless victims of the most narrowly focused and aggressive among us.

As I said, each one of us is an experiment. Life is a test of our situated intelligence, such as it is.

As unique individuals, each of us might be the only one who appreciates the difference we strive to make by acting in the world as we do. At the same time, we often underestimate the damage we do by undertaking those same actions. We are change agents by nature. And hugely successful. But not as we might intend.

I own a two-volume report of an international symposium sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, held in Princeton during June, 1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1193 pages in 2 volumes, © 1956 by the University of Chicago.) Edited by William L. Thomas Jr., the report details the impact that humans have had on the habitats we have occupied since antiquity, and changed forever after, almost always for the worse.

The report makes fascinating but extremely hard reading. Not hard because of any density or specialized jargon; hard because of its crystal-clear message, which we disregard at our peril. As our numbers increase, our collective wayfaring is inevitably wounding the planet that supports us, impairing its habitability for not only ourselves but for many of the species that share our space with us. Global Warming, also our doing, particularly through our power generation and motorized travels and transport, is but our latest assault on the hospitable planet that supports our every activity.

In his summary remarks on “Prospect” at the end of the report, Lewis Mumford, one of three main contributors to the structure of the symposium, includes these words of caution derived from the decline of Rome:

In the third century A.D. an objective observer might well have predicted, on the basis of the imperial public works program, an increase in the number of baths, gladiatorial arenas, garrison towns, and aqueducts. But he would have had no anticipation of the real future, which was the product of a deep subjective rejection of the whole classic way of life and so moved not merely away from it but in the opposite direction. Within three centuries the frontier garrisons were withdrawn, the Roman baths were closed, and some of the great Roman buildings were either being used as Christian churches or treated as quarries for building new structures. Can anyone who remembers this historic transformation believe that the rate of scientific and technological change must accelerate indefinitely or that this technological civilization will inevitably remain dominant and will absorb all the energies of life for its own narrow purposes—profit and power? (Volume 2, pages 1142-1143.)

Our individual actions—our wayfaring journeys—it seems, have massive collective consequences. Not only those we purposefully strive for, but also the cumulative impact of our species on the blue planet that hosts us in the vastness of space.

We don’t mean any harm, but deadly harm we surely inflict.

Now that polar ice sheets are melting, the race is on to claim the fish and resources that our carelessness is opening unto us in the Arctic. Never mind the polar bears. We are out to consume the flesh of our planet, not realizing our own folly. How cruel, how thoughtless, how ironic is that? We plead innocent, but stand guilty—each one of us—nonetheless.

No, this is not the point of my story about our active engagement with our surroundings. But it is a pointed digression to suggest that minds which evolved to survive in a Paleolithic world may not be suited to a world we have largely modified for our own comfort. Can we further evolve in time to save ourselves and our world, or are we destined to thwart our own intentions—as I so often do in my dreams?

Perhaps we can stage a recall of our advanced model of humans and have chips inserted in our brains that will program us to recognize when we have done more damage than Earth can bear. I merely wish to point out that, as currently equipped, we have outrun our warrantee and are doomed for the scrapyard, proving our mortality yet again (as if more proof were needed).

As I have written, we act to make a difference in the world and, indeed, we are proving successful beyond our wildest dreams, but not in the ways we intended.

We took a wrong turn getting out of the Neolithic, inventing roads and engines and cities and weapons, which led to assembly lines, cars, atom bombs, and the fix we are now in. We would have done better striding on the legs we were born with instead of lounging in luxury motorcars. But that’s a far less-likely ending to our story.

 

As bipedal animals, our remarkable, weight-bearing hind limbs support much of our wayfaring, freeing our forelimbs for all manner of clever manipulations for which we are duly famous.

While our legs shuffle, walk, lope, stride, run, hop, leap, jump, skip, dance and generally carry us ahead in a forward direction, our arms, hands, and fingers can hold, carry, throw, catch, pull, push, press, twist, hit, point, tweak, rub, caress, clap, and make a great many other finely-adjusted movements and gestures in accomplishing the myriad tasks we assign ourselves to do every day.

Think of the physical discipline required of ballet dancers, baseball players, musicians, mechanics, assemblers, crafters, artists, chefs, carpenters, jewelers, surgeons, and all who work with trained arms, hands, and fingers. Now think of the thousands of hours of practice, rehearsal, and refinement they put into acquiring the skills they need to create the civilized world we take so for-granted as if being born to it meant it has existed forever just as it is.

No, the world we live in today is largely made and maintained by human hands. Hands consisting of bones, joints, muscles, and tendons all directed and coordinated by human minds that intentionally will them to perform as they do. Here is the crux of our loops of engagement, the behaviors we exhibit as appropriate to the situations we get ourselves into.

This is the leading edge of our intent to get through the day and survive. Every perception, judgment, and action leads to this, our daily performance. Our engagement with life itself by which we prove ourselves worthy.

Just having that thought gives me a jab to the chest, leaving me breathless. It’s that simple? The commotions and alarms, the furor, the folly, the turmoil—all come down to this? Our painstaking engagement in doing whatever it is that we do?

Me, sitting at my computer, leaning back in my chair, staring at my winking cursor at the end of this very sentence? This is what it is all about? The point of my life? Me, sitting here, fingers poised over my keyboard, deciding what to write down whatever it is my happiness dictates?

Yes, in my case, this is precisely the point. I have shut everything else from my mind. My life experience leads to this moment of wonderful tension. What now? After eighty-two years, what do I do in this exact instant?

Picture a life made of millions of such instants. Cumulatively preparing for, adding to, and shaping this particular one. The evidence of my survival for those millions of instants tells me I must be doing something right. As a wayfarer, I have made and followed a course for myself that leads here.

The challenge I take from this instant is to decide how I am to guide my arms, hands, and fingers to type what it is I have to say. Not want to say, but have to say because my entire life is balanced just here at this point in time when I am about to change the configuration of the world with my next stroke of a key. Spiritual guidance is what it takes, in the form of a metaphorical helmsman at the inner wheel of myself.

These thoughts may give you a sense of the urgency that drives me to engage in this task I have assigned to myself by living the life I have lived. To get down on paper my thoughts about how my mind works. The only mind I have access to, which I can only take as a fair example of minds somewhat similar to those of my family and friends.

The recent deaths of my two brothers, both elder and younger, leave me as the last man standing—the last wayfarer—of the generation born to our father and mother, who, too, were survivors as proof they must have taken the right path, as their progenitors must have taken theirs, all the way back to beginning times.

You see how I have fleshed out the instant when I caught myself gazing at the cursor. One instant leads on to the next, and that to the next. Thought follows thought, action follows action, keystroke follows keystroke. The necessary order of my life appears before me, more discovered than planned.

I put myself at the leading edge of my existence, and that edge cuts decisively ahead into the unknown and unpredictable. I barely know what I am thinking and writing. What I do know is that I have to be true to the sense that emerges within me when I put myself in this place.

What I am trying to do is trust the life force that is driving me ahead right now. To listen to that force and write down what it dictates. Except it doesn’t dictate, it passes the burden to my fingers and tells them to get busy and write what they want. Which turns out to be the words you are reading as they flow from the situation my mind is facing just now.

My life force is engaging your life force one-on-one. My mind is speaking to your mind. There’s only the two of us together in this instant. Engaging in our own way. Being wholly ourselves. Separate as individuals in different black boxes, but equal one to the other as joined in common endeavor. Trying to understand what is going on in our respective minds. Caught up in that challenge. Giving our utmost to that cause.

 

394. First Post for 2015

January 1, 2015

Happiness is being the person you most want to be, doing the things you most want to do.

Happy New Year, everybody!

—Steve from planet Earth