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.

 

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Some migratory birds may use the stars to navigate by. And we humans have long relied on the stars to guide our travels at night. We are born to them, after all, to the sky at night as well as the day. Once we escape the glare of city lights, what else is there to see at night than the moon, planets, and stars?

We may not be taken by individual stars so much as the luminous array stretching across a dark sky. Who (in the northern hemisphere) has not oohed and aahed at the sight of Orion in winter months or the Milky Way spread overhead in summer?

Our primal relation to the stars is demonstrably preverbal. We utter appreciative noises that hint at the awe within us as we lift our eyes to them, but words generally fail us, as they fail astronauts gazing down on Earth from their capsules, shuttles, and stations in near space.

It’s not so much that stars have no meaning as that we aren’t accustomed to grandeur on so vast a scale. There’s nothing else like them. The stars may be remote, but the feelings they engender in us are at the core of our being aware. You can’t get more intimate than that.

Navigators, of course, have long steered by the stars. And along with clouds, winds, currents, and waves, have used them to populate remote Pacific islands. Astronomers make a living trying to understand the stars, along with astrophysicists and cosmologists. Tell an astrologer your time and place of birth, and he or she will plot the positions of sun, moon, and planets against the twelve houses of the zodiac, producing a horoscope that is yours alone.

Imagine modern life without images provided by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, or many orbiting satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope. I have to admit to being star-struck as a kid, ogling meteor showers, passing comets, and, lower down, displays of green and sometimes red auroras borealis.

I am struck by fireflies, too, and glints off the water, but anything to do with lights in the sky at night commands my attention, including airplane lights and sun-glinting satellites. The cosmic aesthetic may be ethereal, but it is compelling nonetheless.

Too, we are all born to the lore of the constellations that guided early explorers on their far travels across deserts, snowfields, and oceans alike. When we peer at the stars, we subjectively group them into familiar patterns, whose names we then cast onto the heavens. The constellations are in our minds more than in the stars, but we use them nonetheless to map the skies at night as seen from our respective locations on Earth.

From my perspective in midsummer Maine, Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre are high overhead amid the sweep of the Milky Way. Whether seen as bear or dipper, Ursa Major and Minor round the (north) pole star through the course of a year. Sagittarius the archer (or teapot) is more to the south in summer. On maps of stars of the Southern Hemisphere, I find Horologium the clock, Sextans the sextant, Musca the fly, Telescopium the telescope.

Constellations are a cooperative venture between meaningless stars and the pattern-seeking minds of humans on the lookout for meaning by projecting recognizable shapes onto the heavens. Even the patterns are illusions in being made up of stars distributed in three-dimensional space (not spread thinly across the supposed “dome” we make of the celestial regions). In that we do violence to the stars for the sake of making them conveniently familiar and comprehensible.

Seeing a parade of godlike figures along the zodiac is no different. All of astrology is in human heads, along with the naming of planets after ancient gods, envisioning the stars as circling the Earth in twenty-four hours, and the sun as gliding through the twelve constellations of the zodiac in a year’s time.

Such doings illustrate our human yen to engage the stars to discover their meaning. If we don’t find it there, then, well, we make it up to suit our needs at the time. We’ve been doing just that—and then painfully trying to undo it—throughout the course of recorded history. It is one thing to see what we see; something else again to take responsibility for our part in the process of putting mind and night image together as if they were one and the same.

That is a profound lesson the stars have to teach us because we now know there are no actual groupings of stars such as the houses and constellations we chart on our maps of the heavens. As I personally know that the figures I project onto the wavering filaments of the northern lights are a result of my mind doing its best to find familiar shapes where no such disciplined forms actually exist.

It might seem like our home planet is at the precise center of universal goings-on, but that is a story told by our Neolithic perspective, which gives no account of galaxies, arms of galaxies, minor suns in the arms of galaxies, or of minor planets circling such stars—of which we now know there must be billions.

It only strikes us that we occupy the center of the Great All because our minds are trapped in their black boxes in our heads, and that’s what we make of the puzzle of the outside world in a kind of grand guess about what may be out there in clear view above the horizon of what our naïve minds have any chance to understand.

In themselves, stars are meaningless. It takes human minds looking through human eyes (and perhaps a telescope or pair of binoculars) to make stars meaningful. The meanings are in us, ready to be mapped onto stellar features and characteristics—position, motion, relationships, color, brightness, lines of spectral absorption or emission, and so on.

The meanings of stars are in our minds, as all meanings are in our minds.

What, then, are meanings?

I view meanings as the qualities or dimensions of a situation we discover in our minds, a situation made up of some combination of experiential and intellectual values, motivations, emotions, understandings, imaginings, sensory phenomena, remembrances, aesthetic qualities, comparisons, polarities, judgments, thoughts, attitudes, urges to action, and so on, all driven by our personal quota of the life force as delivered by our metabolism.

Meanings and situations are often associated with particular words as supplied by our culture and families for our personal use. These various qualities of inner awareness (what I refer to as dimensions of mind, experience, intellect, or consciousness) are present in greater or lesser degree, forming configurations in our minds that characterize the specific mental situations in which they arise, so constituting the meaning of a given situation in our experience as witnessed from our perspective at any given moment. The proper reference for our meaningful mental activity is the situation we are facing as we configure it at the time.

Words may symbolize such meanings, but the meanings are not in the words themselves. Meanings are properties of the experiential situations that words refer to or represent, however concrete or abstract, specific or general they may be.

I think of words as arising from (or being called forth by) what I sense as preverbal kernels of awareness. Each such kernel is a seed of meaning bearing its particular set of qualities of inner experience as a nugget, node, or item in awareness. I associate each such seed with a particular kind of experience kindled by life situations as they occur (present themselves) to my intelligence as so situated. When I speak, that seed sprouts and blossoms as a stream of words issuing from my lips.

If I find meaning in the stars, what I find is the inner meaning comprising the dimensions of my mental experience activated by a particular occasion for stargazing. That meaning is in me, not the stars. It is something I bring to the stars, not something they give to me.

As visual impressions, stars are gleaming, glistening nonentities, minute dots of radiant nothingness. I can’t hear them, touch them, smell them, heft them, taste them, collect them, or affect them in any way.

How can I engage the stars if they answer me only with silence and their chorus of fixed smiles overhead? I can see them arrayed before me much as I see grains of sand spread out as a beach. It is more their overall effect and relationships that I see, not individual stars.

I can’t even imagine how remote stars are from my everyday world. That remoteness is measured in light years, the distance light travels in the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun in one year. How far can light travel in 365 days at a speed of 186-thousand miles each second for every one of those days? How about 5.88 trillion miles, give or take?

Excluding the sun, our nearest stellar neighbor is the star that astronomers call Alpha Centauri (the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus), which is about 4.4 light years away, almost 26 trillion miles.

What experience can I have of something as remote from my everyday life as that? Contemplating that non-event, I feel overwhelmed by a hypothetical thought experiment of the most trivial kind. I’ve got errands to run and groceries to buy; how can anything as minute as Alpha Centauri rise above the horizon of my concerns? Who needs Alpha Centauri? Who needs the stars?

 

During my early encounters with psychology, that word held strong connotations of either animal experimentation or pathology and mental illness. Stemming via Latin from two Greek words meaning roughly “breath” or “spirit” (Latin psyche) and “talk” or “thought” (Latin logos), the two roots add up to something like spirit talk or mind lore.

Early on, breath was taken as a sign of life, absence of breath a sign of death. Breath was what we acquired at birth, and surrendered with our last gasp—what some thought of as “spirit.” It came to stand for the non-physical element that seemingly animates our bodies.

The negative connotations of psychology were laid on in the nineteenth century when attention was directed by medical doctors to what might go wrong with a mind in contrast to its right and proper functioning.

Much of my early reading in psychology was given over to discussion of mental disorders. You couldn’t read psychology texts without wondering how crazy you really were. Now, my interest in the mind is directed more toward its normal, everyday performance. I think we need to understand what’s right with the mind before we can properly deal with what’s gone wrong.

That difference itself says a great deal about how our minds work. We pay attention either if our minds seem to work exceptionally well, or if they do poorly. Idiot-savants combine those extreme states of mind. The state of normality in-between is taken for granted without comment. That’s why the connotations of psychology are so often negative, suggesting our minds need mending or healing. If they work as they should, there’s no need to seek out Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung.

The meaning of “mind lore,” then, commonly leans toward the negative polarity, as just owning a car has strong implications of a good garage being available to keep it in good running order.

My preference is to consider the human mind in its everyday mode of wellness and not sickness. For that reason, I now introduce a series of posts dealing with the mind in the context of baseball, our national pastime; Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus, found lying around somewhere in every writer’s workspace; and the stars above, which, remote as they may be, affect our inward lives more profoundly than any creation of mankind ever has.

And now a plug for engagement. The prevailing attitude is that mind puts a consumptive drain on the brain’s physical resources, so cannot be visualized as a kind of spiritual entity operating independently of the brain. But as I have been trying to point out in this blog, engagement is a stimulating activity that, for good or ill, arouses and focuses attention, serving as a kind of on-off switch that directs the brain’s physical resources to mental activities in an extremely efficient manner precisely because of the synchronization it enables between perceptual and physical activity.

Notice how all else falls away when we are fully engaged. Engagement isn’t just a drain, it gives the brain a needed boost as a coherent and smooth-running engine at peak performance. Engagement assures the biggest bang per unit of neurological exertion. When disengaged, the brain is at sixes and sevens without a sense of priority. Each module putts along doing its own self-maintenance chores. When engagement kicks in, the brain comes to life like a dog about to being taken for a walk. Now it can truly show its stuff and not just lie around the house. I would say the brain exists to sharply and deeply engage, as the dog exists to run, leap, and frisk.

Here I will maintain that the mind not only exists, but exists to engage in the play of baseball, of looking up words in the Thesaurus, of celebrating the lights in the sky overhead. As a hint to what lies ahead in this series of posts on baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and human concern with the stars, just imagine the skilled and passionate engagements of those thousands of medieval craftsmen who built Gothic Cathedrals. They might have claimed to be doing God’s bidding, but out of professional pride, they put their hearts into the work of creating the most imaginative, attractive, breath-taking, and durable structures since the fall of the Roman Empire. Those cathedrals were direct expressions of human minds working in collaborative and passionate engagement on the most important projects in a thousand years of human endeavor. We gasp when we look upon those buildings today, monuments to the men who conceived and constructed them stone by stone, window by window, with their hands and eyes engaged in precise coordination.

Baseball. Abner Doubleday (later a General at Gettysburg) is said to have invented baseball in 1839 as a means of keeping his military academy students in good physical shape. Another tradition traces the origin back to the base-running game of rounders in eighteenth-century England. Doubleday did stipulate the dimensions of the playing field, size of and distance between bases, rules governing defensive play by the team in the field and offensive play by the team at bat.

The game itself serves as a metaphor for the battles that make up a military campaign, without the killing. Its very structure flows from the polarity that underscores awareness of events good or bad, positive or negative, desirable or undesirable, won or lost. The rules of baseball impose the ideal of fairness on every contest, giving both teams an equal chance at winning the game.

We watch baseball because many of us find it thoroughly engaging. It speaks our language, and we speak its. It’s as if we are born to play and watch baseball. Or so it seems. Actually, we are born to engage with what captures our attention, and baseball is designed to do just that.

Baseball brings out our best at throwing, catching, running, sliding, leaping, batting, playing as a team, and displaying our skills at offense and defense. All of which requires extreme concentration every step of the way. Baseball does exactly what Doubleday intended it to—keep us on our toes while striving to do our best. Even if we’re in bleacher seats, we are aroused, paying attention, and on our toes nonetheless.

 

I took C. Kenneth Meese’s Theory of the Photographic Process with me into the Army when I was drafted. I’ll bet no other draftee has ever chosen that particular book to take with him into the service. But the choice made sense to me because I wanted to know how light striking a light-sensitive emulsion could produce a photographic image.

Kodak made emulsions out of cheek pieces of cattle obtained from slaughterhouses. The makeup of those cheek pieces depended on what the cattle had eaten in the fields they had lived in. The sensitivity of the photographic emulsions invented by George Eastman depended on the amount of sulfur from mustard weed the cows had ingested.

Kodak film came to depend on very strict quality control of the diets of cows whose cheek pieces went into the gelatin from which that film was made. Who could have known, or even suspected? I loved it, reading that book by flashlight after taps during basic training. The Army didn’t own me completely; by clinging to such idiosyncratic engagements, I was still my own man.

So here I am today, writing about the exploration of my own mind, trying to finish this project before I die, continuing a tradition begun so long ago under the influence of the family I was born to as middle male child out of three. I loved my parents, but felt distant from them. My older brother had my father’s attention; my younger brother was my mother’s chief concern. I turned my engagements into the world of nature and discovery. Given the family I was born to, I didn’t know what else to do.

Here I am, still at it, but with a twist. Looking inward because so few others have taken that path, and among all choices, that is the one that intrigues me the most. The real action is not in the world or its universe. It is in the miracle of our own minds that dare entertain such mysteries.

Einstein’s famous thought experiments were all in his mind, as current theories of how the universe works are in the minds of modern cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists. I can’t understand taking on the universe with an incomplete grasp of the primary tool I use to observe its features. Talk about carts before horses, that strikes me as insane, employing a mind you don’t understand to probe the biggest mystery of all. The blind leading the blind. Trapped in worlds of conjecture and opinion.

All going back to the families we were raised in, to our primal engagements, and the lifelong habits we build around them. To the situations we found ourselves in early on and tried to understand. And to explain, often mainly to ourselves. The very selves we have to understand in getting beyond our limitations to a true appreciation of our place in the cosmos.

The development of our minds begins in our families where we catch on to the trick of linking perception to judgment to acting on purpose, then extending our reach into nature, culture community, and back to us in our families. Taking full responsibility for such loops of engagement, we can begin to understand features of the universe beyond our true grasp.

This post concludes my series not only on family engagements, but engagements with nature, culture, and community as well. I now switch to considering three examples of engagements that distinguish us as a people: our engagements with baseball as our national pastime, Roget’s Thesaurus as a reference on every writer’s bookshelf, and with the stars which serve as a luminous slate for projecting our deepest needs into the mystery of the night sky.