I have covered a lot of ground in getting this far with my blog telling the inside story of consciousness. I here offer an opportunity to see that journey not as a sequence of hesitant steps, but as an adventure entire in itself. Here are a few bulleted reminders of the stages I have passed through.

  • Consciousness is a collaborative effort between mind, body, and world. It intercedes between perception and action, and can be bypassed by reflex thinking, rote learning, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, and ideology.
  • Solving the world puzzle from the perspective provided by our minds is a matter of conjecture based on personal experience, not knowledge, not truth.
  • Perception provides not a glimpse of the world so much as a heightened impression of the world from a particular wayfarer’s point of view.
  • Like Plato, we all share in the common failing of mistaking our personal solution to the world puzzle for the way the world really is. Our beliefs are custom-made for true believers (that is, ourselves, who couldn’t be more earnest).
  • The more ardently we hold our beliefs, the more likely we are to be wrong.
  • Expectancy and recognition reveal the participation of memory in perception.

No matter how finely we resolve the tissues of the brain, consciousness will elude us because it is an ongoing process of engagement between our minds, actions, and the world.

  • Attention is the gateway to consciousness. It is aroused by a delta signal stemming from a sense of discrepancy between what we expect or hope for and what actually happens.
  • From the outset, all awareness is polarized as being either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, satisfying or dissatisfying, right or wrong, true or false.
  • It takes persistence and concentration to explore the forbidden middle ground between the two poles of awareness.
  • The engagements that link us to our worlds couple perception to meaningful judgment to fitting action on one or more levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which in turn affects our attention and stimulates sensory perception.
  • Our engagements are told by the situations they create in our minds as made up of various dimensions of intelligence such as memory, sensory impressions, understanding, feelings, motivations, biological values, humor, imagination, temperament, interest, thought, and available energy (what I refer to as the life force).
  • Language in the form of speech, writing, thought, and comprehension flows from the situations we find ourselves in when we experience the urge to speak or to listen.

As a writer, I have long wondered where words come from. I now feel that our situated intelligence shapes our current situation from the dimensions of personal awareness (or intelligence) aroused in a given moment of experience. In being conscious, it is just those situations that we become conscious of, and subsequently respond to.

  • All life engages its surroundings in an ongoing exchange of matter and energy. It is the job of our minds to monitor how that exchange is going, and to feed-forward to judgment a selection of options for how we might respond. For good or ill—and engagements can strike us either way—we must engage in order to find our place in the world.
  • We are linked and anchored to our worlds by a spectrum of ongoing (often simultaneous) engagements. It is essential for us to keep up with what is happening around us. Hence we live in a world of media all striving to influence and inform us from their respective points of view.
  • Time is a calibrated sense of change that is not of our doing; space is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our own actions. Spacetime is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our simultaneously doing and perceiving at once.
  • Ownership and possessiveness are attitudes toward persons and objects with which we meaningfully engage in being fully ourselves. Money is a tool we use to engage on cultural terms. The law is our culture’s effort to regulate the conduct of our engagements so that each of us enjoys equal freedom and opportunity in pursuit of our personal goals.
  • Freedom is an opportunity to engage the world with full respect for the integrity of each of its inhabitants, whether plant, animal, or human.
  • Baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars provide examples of aspects of the world puzzle we are apt to engage with in our search for personal happiness. There is no limit to the importance we project onto such personal engagements as primary shapers of our lives.

I view my personal consciousness as culminating in the image of a wayfarer finding his way among others who are making their own ways for themselves. Our respective journeys are so varied and personal, I identify with each wayfarer in taking on the challenge of finding a way forward from wherever she or he is at any given stage of life.

The task each one of us faces is solving the world puzzle in a meaningful way for ourselves, while respecting other solutions for other wayfarers on journeys of their own.

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What Sumerian priests discovered 5,400 years ago was synchrony between goings-on in the night sky and human labors on Earth below—on both daily and yearly scales of events.

What they didn’t discover was the cause of that dual synchrony in the daily rotation of Earth on its axis, together with its annual and seasonal journey around the sun, with the planes of those two motions tilted at an angle of twenty-three-and-a-half degrees one to the other.

Instead, the stars and planets themselves were credited with their own self-propulsive powers as inherent in the cosmic order fulfilled nightly overhead.

How marvelous that daily and yearly procession must have seemed. It was truly a revelation. A grasping of the stunning difference between chaos and cosmos, disorder and order. What a powerful idea! That a system with so many moving parts was ruled by the gratifying harmony of motion that joined Earth, planets, sun, moon, and stars in unison together as one idea or system of ideas. Not for a day, a season, a year, but—as evidence and wonder accrued from generation to generation—seemingly forever.

If we put ourselves in that era of grand discovery, the temple priests who formulated that formative cosmology were clearly on the leading edge of their personal experience, and the collective experience of their people.

Their grand vision of cosmic harmony (as of 3,200 BCE), combined with belief that the power of self-motion was shared by stars, planets, and humans as indubitable proof of the motive power of the living soul (because only living beings could move of their own will)—that coupling of ideas was the intellectual achievement of their time in expressing their early grasp of cosmology in the intuitive concept that bound human understanding and labor to the very force that drove the universe.

It was apparently the Sumerians who saw that each point of light in the sky reflected the overall scheme of a world (or cosmic) soul as the driving force behind the evidence they beheld with their own eyes.

Do stars have meaning for humans? Indeed, as profound as meaning can be. Practical meaning. Cultural meaning. Historic meaning. Religious meaning. Aesthetic meaning. Ideal meaning. Survival meaning. All taken together surely amounting to the truth. Or at least an approximation of the truth. A truth that would stand until a more durable one came along. A truth in the fallible human mind. Which, no matter how many people believe it, is where all concepts-ideas-thoughts-truths reside.

The fragility of this particular truth was compounded in coming generations by the combined musings of Plato, Aristotle, and both their Neoplatonist and Christian heirs early in the new millennium—unto Thomas Aquinas and the builders of Mediaeval cathedrals who expressed this singular truth in stone and stained glass—in idealizing and personifying the idea that drives the universe as the principle of absolute reason, goodness, and harmony at the core of a universe such as they chose to believe in.

 

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.

 

448. Family Engagements

March 4, 2015

How do families form? How do they work? How do they stay together? How do they fall apart?

Some would say the driving force is the binding power of religious belief. Others would say, cultural tradition, civil authority, paternal or maternal consent, and so on. Still others would maintain that families are formed in response to the abiding and mutual attraction of two people in love.

Many would agree that it takes a public act or ceremony to instigate a family, attended by as large a sector of a community as can be gathered together, adding the weight of many hearers to any vows that might be exchanged. And incidentally forming a base of well-wishers right from the start.

But in fact, families form whenever and wherever conditions are present in the right proportion to support individuals in committing themselves one to another, as construed by the minds of those concerned.

Sexual engagement may be involved before, during, or after any such pledge of commitment. Women like to be wedded and bedded; men like to bed and be fed. Most agree that families require consummation at some point to become sufficiently binding to enter into the books that make families official or legal in the public mind.

But there are a great many extra-legal ways to start a family, one being a shotgun wedding enforced by the male parent of a fallen maiden, or simply by mutual consent of the people (not necessarily of different sexes) involved with no additional requirements.

From the standpoint of children within a family, we know our families from the unique perspective of our unfolding minds, never twice the same two days in a row. By definition, we are developing all the while, every hour of every day. We are not yet fully human, and have far to go before we achieve an identity worthy of that honorific title. But day by day, wayfarers that we are, we head in that direction.

If the question could be put to us early on, “Eat and poop, poop and eat, when are you going to stop being such an animal?,” our behavior would answer for us: “Bear with me, I’m working on it.” By the time we are thirty, forty, fifty, or eighty, all will be revealed.

As children, our repertory of developing gifts is influenced by a number of factors: genetic heritage, diet, skills we work on, engagements we strike up, character traits of those around us—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, and neighbors. We’re all working on it by providing a stimulating and supportive (and somewhat stressful) family setting matched to (and a little ahead of) our respective levels of competence.

Think of the young Mozart, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams, following the examples provided by attentive, encouraging, and often demanding parents. Prodigies are made, not born, by seizing the occasions they are given for grappling to achieve what they see others doing with polish and ease.

Infants thrive on repeated awareness of warmth, tenderness, milk, and sonorous engagements suited to their needs and abilities. Reassured by their initial contacts, they seek a greater range of challenges through more demanding engagements. Cooing sounds become hummed tunes become lullabies become rousing songs. Babbled syllables become recognizable words; words in a row become sentences. Eyes open, heads lift, arms reach, legs push, ta da—we’re crawling, and about to rear up on our hind legs and really get moving so we won’t be late for our first speech.

Five factors are crucial to our childhood development: our unique genome, the ages of our parents, spacing and birth-order of all siblings, and the sexual identity or preference of all concerned. Volumes have been written about the details of each. Relative not only to our brothers and sisters, but to our parents, whether they be nurturing, encouraging, challenging, preoccupied, overprotective—whatever.

Father is often the active one who physically challenges us; mother the caregiver who supports (while shaping) our every endeavor. It could be the other way around, or neither, or both. We respond to the adults we are born to, or acquire thereafter, whatever their gifts and limitations at the time, however we are able to engage them.

We respond differentially to their example according to our needs, interests, desires, and abilities. These first mutual interactions set the tone for all that follow. We bask in the attention, and strive to keep up by doing our best. The bar rises higher and higher each time, the effort goes up, the satisfaction climbs. We grow into ourselves through personal exertion, putting ourselves out to become who we strive to be. No one can do it for us.

Every step is earned through hard work and determination. Given time enough and stamina, there’s no limit to how far the life force might take us once we achieve lift-off within our families and our flightpath is subject to personal control.

But our families can engage us so that we keep striving on our own with their help. Together, we can make it happen. Apart, we can only get so far on our own because engagements take two or more players, and it is the flow of ongoing interaction that counts, not merely token glances, smiles, or frowns. They are for later once we’ve learned to meet our own standards through disciplined practice again and again.

We get good at what we actually do, not what we promise but only half-heartedly try.

In coming posts I will speak largely from the perspective I have on my own family, since that is the only one I can address with the authority of personal experience.

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.

444. Double-take on Community

February 27, 2015

Look. And look again. You might not see the same thing two times in a row. When I look at Bar Harbor in winter, I see a small New England town covered in snow (as it is today while I focus on this post). It has that Currier-and-Ives feel about it. In summer I see a bustling tourist town filled to the brim with strangers just milling around wondering what to do next, clogging the sidewalks and streets. There are days (when several cruise ships are in, for example) I wish I could hibernate like Taunton Bay horseshoe crabs for six months of the year—just dig a hole in the mud and retire from the scene for six months. Pretend the tourist season never happened.

The irony being that shop and motel owners are blissfully happy on the very same days that I am down in the dumps. They are deeply invested in the economy of Bar Harbor, and that economy barely limps along in the winter, but runs full-steam-ahead from July through October while I think of hibernating.

 

Bar Harbor in Summer

With a cruise ship in, the streets of Bar Harbor teem with summer visitors.

That double-take is the result of the delta signal in my brain between good times and bad. At either extreme of happiness or deep disturbance, that is the signal that alerts consciousness to pay close attention to what’s going on because we’re sure to be affected one way or the other. If we had fair weather and smooth sailing every day of the year, we’d have no need for consciousness because we could just set the tiller and let the boat steer itself while we didn’t have a thought in our heads.

But that isn’t how our little worlds work. We all have ups and downs, often several times a day. Depending on how we adapt to the situations we are in as they change for better or worse. Those situations aren’t the issue, it’s how we take them from our current perspective. Sometimes the very same situation sets us off in ways that are diametrically opposed. It depends on our mood at the time, what we had for lunch, how well we slept the previous night.

As always, we’re in for the long haul, so slide from good times to bad, or the reverse a few minutes later. Just wait a bit and we’ll get over it. Or so it is to be hoped. Being mortal means we have earned the right to change our minds. To peer out through a new pair of eyes.

I have winter and summer eyes to cast on Bar Harbor, which as a New England coastal community, is always doing its thing. I live here, so am along for the ride, whatever it brings. One thing for sure: tomorrow will be as different from today as Miami Beach is from Helsinki.

 

Card players on the town pier, summer in Bar Harbor.

Card players don’t look up to enjoy the harbor.

How we handle these dichotomies in experience is up to us, depending on how resilient we are. We can reach out with cheery spirits in an active manner to kindle engagements that might be lagging a bit. We can wave to friends and acquaintances instead of turning our backs. We can reach out to start an engagement, shake hands, pat them on the back or shoulder, share a hug, give a kiss, initiate a conversation, share a story, invite friends over for a game or for dinner.

We each have a repertory of gestures that signal our readiness to engage. Nothing is more powerful than an open smile in inviting a trusting engagement. Eyes askance or to the ground signal otherwise.

Even at work where we are expected to do our job, we can do it with a style that includes others in the process we are engaged in. If we seem to be enjoying ourselves, others will want to join in the fun. If we keep our head down, others will skirt our workplace by a good margin.

By synchronizing our actions with those of others, we can make it easier to be ourselves in mutual companionship, even inducing them to join us. Such activities are moderated by our strengths and needs at the time, which we can subtly broadcast in our postures, gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice.

 

Bar Harbor in Winter.

Body language on skis in wintertime Bar Harbor.

In a very real sense, communities run on the collective body language of their members at different levels of intimacy. To make anything happen, we have to select the level we want to engage on, then show up and give it a try, always being mindful of the level appropriate to that occasion.

The stuff that communities are built of is not bricks and mortar but flesh and blood. And something else: human minds. Each unique, each in a mood of its own. No two communities are the same because their prime constituents are highly specific. For that reason, it is dangerous to generalize about the nature of communities. With a different mix of unique inhabitants, each community is unique unto itself.

Since communities are the warm seas that bathe our minds, we want them to harbor us as contentedly as we enjoy them. Harmony between a place and its residents is the watchword, even if seldom achieved. There it is again, that helical loop of hospitality and gratitude between a one-celled organism and its surroundings.

We humans are no different in depending absolutely on the nurturing engagements we establish with the communal niches that provide for us. Every community is just such a niche in providing water, clean air, food, shelter, work, companionship, and much else.

The polarity of the relationship we establish says it all: this is the good life, I like it, I approve, I want to stay here; in contrast with: this is the pits, I hate it, I disapprove, I can’t wait to get away.

To get clear with ourselves, we intuitively react in such passionate terms. Our minds are made to sharpen distinctions in our minds so we think and feel in bold strokes. Our minds do the heavy shading for us so we won’t miss the point in a wash of subtle tones. Fish or cut bait, stay or move on, help or get lost.

People pay good money to ride on roller-coasters to remind them they are alive in two different ways—up and down, good and bad. Being alive means having choices. Choices and decisions require backing consciousness with sound judgment. Whizzing us up and down, life is guaranteed to deliver just such a ride, testing our judgment on every hill and valley.

Please note: I usually have second thoughts about hibernating for the duration of a summer in Bar Harbor. I may let the throng get me down at times, but I always bounce back and take to the woods for a walk, or Taunton Bay for a row. This year I’ve had thoughts of hibernating under all this snow. Just dig a hole next to my poppy bed and hunker down where the snow will serve as insulation from the chill blast out of Canada. It’s not that bad things never happen. Our paramount skill is in being resilient no matter what comes our way.

That’s it for my posts on the topic of community. Now it’s on to the family level of our engagement with the world, which I will explore from my point of view in upcoming posts.

Trust, love, play, loyalty, and relationships are all subject to rules that almost everyone concerned can agree on. I think of them as rules of engagement, of linking action to perception, self to other(s), individuals to society. Community is a web of interactions, always changing, never twice the same two days in a row, but promoting engagement nonetheless.

Reduced to a concept, community sounds like a fixed thing, but it is alive because each of its members is alive, and the exact configuration of events is unpredictable. The Fourth of July Parade comes around every year, but, too, it is different each time. Different personnel, different bands, different floats, different fireworks, different weather, different watchers along the route—but the same, enduring communal institution so that we refer to it as a fixture of communal life because subject each year to much the same rules and traditions. We are a year older each time, with another year’s experience put away, but we are the same people engaging much as we always have with others, who are also different but look much the same to us.

It is the differences within the envelope of sameness that we pay particular attention to, and differentially respond to. We don’t want this year’s parade to resemble last year’s too closely. We want to be pleasantly surprised, excited, involved—engaged in our minds. Otherwise we lose interest and turn away, or don’t show up at all.

We need the stimulation that differences provide us or we don’t even notice what’s happening. The same-old, same-old shuts us down, turns consciousness off, fails to catch our attention. Dullsville, Inc. Change the channel; find something better to do. Make new friends. Buy a new dress. Get a new drill bit or new App. Order something new at that restaurant that just opened.

Novelty promotes engagement because it takes us beyond where we were toward where we want to go. We are wayfarers precisely because we’re en route to somewhere we’ve never been.

We hunger for novel experience to break up the essential routines we depend on in getting through the day. Finding something to wear, packing a lunch, getting the kids off to school, going to work, eating lunch, coming home.

Yes, we need the stability provided by such familiar routines, but at the same time we want those engagements to be special in being particularly noticeable because they stand out from the background of everyday routines.

So we acquire a repertory of tricks to spice things up as if they were new. This time we make our own Valentine’s Day cards, knit a new scarf, pack a surprise in the lunch box, put in a row of scarlet runner beans, eat with chop sticks, fast for a day, read a book instead of watching TV.

We don’t want to rock the boat, just shake it enough to sharpen our attention. Do enough to spark up a long-term relationship. To keep things from running down and getting dull. We do this in so many ways—getting our hair cut, trying a new stud, tattoo, or shade of lipstick, telling a joke, this time bringing flowers and a bottle of wine—it barely needs mentioning. Except these are reflections of our minds in action. Stimulating lagging relationships. Avoiding being taken for granted. Staying perky, bright, and attractive so the right people will notice and stay as engaged with us as they were in the old days.

There is a whole layer of unwritten rules beneath the familiar rules of the game to keep consciousness alive and well by being well-fed on novelty. Things our mother never taught us because she thought they were obvious and didn’t need saying. Things we missed because we weren’t ready or weren’t paying attention.

Communities are built by sustaining a host of ongoing engagements that don’t turn sour because of casual indifference. Active communities promote engagements between their members; they don’t just sit and wait for something to happen. The movers and shakers in a community take turns making it an exciting, inviting, and enjoyable place to live. A place hospitable to consciousness.

 

Early human settlements were commonly located on the banks of lakes, streams, or wetlands where water for drinking, fishing, hunting, washing, removing waste, and boating was readily available. London was founded at the junction where the River Fleete flowed into the Thames Estuary, New York between the Hudson and East Rivers, Rome on the Tiber, Paris on the Seine, Alexandria in the Nile Delta.

Communities spring up where they do for good reason, often having to do with protection from the elements, plentiful food, water, and natural resources essential to survival, together with ease of access to other areas.

People gather in communities for many reasons. We have school communities, work communities, religious communities, ethnic group communities, and common interest communities of all sorts. I see all these various groupings as communities of engagement. We gather together either formally or informally but always personally, at meetings and events, or on the Internet, to suit our common needs and interests.

In community there is strength because engagement builds connections between separate individuals. When facing difficulties, two minds are better than one. Communication by means of a common language is of the essence in building communities to meet common needs and purposes. Communities are where we learn the language(s) we will use to express our minds for the rest of our lives.

To achieve mutual benefit, all members of a community must abide by the same set of rules and expectations. In reflection 427 I suggested ten rules of engagement with nature. Local courts and law enforcement agencies enforce our formal rules of engagement with our local communities. Pay your taxes, honor contracts, don’t go bankrupt, drive on the right side of the road, and so on. If we’re late for school, we’ll be called to the office. If we’re late for work, we’ll be docked.

There are no laws requiring us to respect our neighbors, but without doubt communities depend on harmony between neighbors of all sorts. If you borrow a cup of sugar, repay the favor as soon as you can. If you borrow a lawnmower, return it all gassed-up the same day. Invite the neighbors over at least once a year, and by all means be sure the kids go to birthday parties bearing gifts when invited.

In my case, coastal Hancock County, Maine, provides the context of my personal engagements. It is the particular sector of nature and culture that I engage with every day. It is where my wayfaring feet meet the pathways of the collective society I am a member of. Community is the footprint of my personal experience on my local culture and, in turn, my culture’s footprint on my mind. In practical terms, my community is the locus of my engagements within walking (and short driving) distance of where I live.

A circle with a fifteen-mile radius around my apartment in the town of Bar Harbor embraces the coastal community (both land and water) I have engaged with for the past twenty-nine years. If I have made any kind of a mark, it would lie within that circle. Certainly that circle has left its mark on my mind.

I have a good many albums of photographs I have taken within that circle, and thousands of jpg files on my several computers. I have made a dozen aerial surveys of bays, ponds, streams, and mountains within that circle, and written four illustrated books about my natural experiences within that same geographic area.

My son and his wife blow glass within that circle, and his brother is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along with my mother, father, and two brothers. Stephen Merchant, my great-great-great-grandfather (after whom I was named), who spent the Revolutionary War in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would have been buried next to his wife in that circle had he not died at sea as crew of a ship loaded with lumber that went down off Cape Cod in “the memorable snowstorm” of November 20, 1798.

Communities write their memories on our minds, as we blaze our ways through the generations along their walks, trails, and roads. My father first met my mother at her family home within the bounds of my communal circle. He was walking from Middlebury, Vermont, to Nova Scotia in 1925 when he stopped at a colleague’s wife’s family home in Sullivan, Maine. That wife’s sister bore me as a child seven years later. My father never made it any farther along his intended journey than that stop. Had he not entered my community circle, I would not be writing this blog today.

On December 23, 1988, I left Burying Island after my two-and-a-half-year stay in the wild to live with Janwillem van de Wetering and his wife , Juanita, in Surry, Maine. Janwillem was a Duch writer of police non-procedurals based on his experiences in a Zen monastery in Kyoto. His wife was a skilled sculptor from Colombia. They were ideal hosts and companions during the two years it took me to develop a new community on the mainland centered on environmental activities.

Both Janwillem and I were on the rebound from excessive indulgence, sobered by pushing ourselves too far in searching for an ideal community to engage with, he in Zen Buddhism, I in going solo as an outlier in nature on Burying Island. We both found a sense of humor essential to our recovery. He offered me a small bedroom in an uninsulated studio on his land on the Union River near Ellsworth. Having little money, I gratefully accepted, and stayed with him and Juanita for two years.

In 1993, I took a job as a seasonal ranger at Acadia National Park, lived in park housing, and in the off-season did volunteer work in the Lands Office in exchange for a place to stay for the winter. I worked first as volunteer coordinator, then as a writer-editor in the Planning Office. My community involvement began to expand, first due to contact with over a thousand park volunteers, then through planning projects in the park and beyond.

Today I live in senior housing in Bar Harbor adjacent to the park, a more suitable habitat among many people, so I am not the conspicuous exception disturbing the natural order of my wild habitat on Burying Island, my toehold in Maine. Now retired, I serve on the Bar Harbor Housing Commission, am the token atheist member of Acadia Friends Meeting (Quakers), and spend my days writing and blogging about the miracle of consciousness as witnessed during many daily bouts of introspection. I also manage Burying Island LLC, a company that owns the island on behalf of its members among my extended family.

As I view it, our life’s energy courses through our varied engagements within our several communities. We act, and are acted upon in return, round after round of exchange. In that sense, the communities we contribute our life’s energy to are dynamic and ever-changing. Our immediate surroundings support us, as we support them, each in our own way. Community building is one of our main jobs in life.

With this blog, I am striving to contribute to a global community of conscious individuals with a shared understanding of, and appreciation for, our common endeavor.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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