Evolution’s achievement of consciousness is a collaborative effort between animal life and its Earthly environment.

Consciousness does not reside in the brain so much as it is a product of life’s engagement with its home planet. When Henry Adams walked out of Chartres Cathedral a changed man and wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the cathedral remained as it was before he arrived, undiminished, unconsumed.

Half of Adams’ engagement came from his attention, concentration, and action; the other half was the cathedral’s doing as a provocative source of engaging stimulation.

If we give ourselves to life, life gives us back in kind. Consciousness springs from just such rounds of give-and-take. It is not something we possess, or have a right to. It is something we invite to happen by opening ourselves to our environment, and trading with it as we are able.

I didn’t need cognitive neuroscience to tell me that, nor a suite of fMRIs and other a la mode research apparatus. What I needed was half of the mind that has sustained me through life, engaged with the other half of environmental stimulation that, taken together, have spurred my thinking, awareness, and experience all my days, including the writing of this blog.

As phenomenologists say, consciousness is always of one thing or another. It isn’t a thing in itself so much as a reacher-toward things. That is called intentionality. As intentional beings, we are always intent on solving this or that problem.

We all start out in life as a quickened egg—largest cell in the human body. And then in nine months run through the developmental cycle it took life itself three-and-a-half billion years to complete. We are modern-day miracles, inventing our own brand of consciousness during our brief stay in the womb.

Everyone’s consciousness is unique because the specifics of its origins are unique—DNA, grandparents, parents, immune system, etc., plus engagements in the womb from conception on. Engagements initiated by our genes, but of which we get the gist and do our part as birth approaches.

We are like an impromptu melody played in the distance, only that melody is inside us, at the core of our being on Earth. We are here not only because our parents conceived us, but because Earth has provided them with the wherewithal to produce us. We are Earthlings from our earliest beginnings, with our own ration of Earthly (perhaps universal) consciousness.

We become citizens of the cosmos that truly begat us, so are eager to show our stuff to anyone who will engage us during our brief stay in the area.

The view of consciousness I offer in this blog is very different from the version that neuroscientists are so relentlessly searching for in the brain. Consciousness is not made of matter in physical form; it is an interaction between specific lifeforms and the worlds they are born to, as Henry Adams was born to a world containing Chartres Cathedral. Scientists won’t find that magnificent structure in anyone’s brain because (as in Adam’s case) it’s at the other end of an engagement that went on for years under all sorts of weather, light, shifts in attitude, and altering comprehension.

I have tried to keep up with published writings about consciousness, but I have yet to find any that make sense to me on the topic as I personally experience it in living my own life. And introspection is so out of fashion in the twenty-first century that I am not likely to meet up with any before I die.

Am I that eccentric? That far out on the fringe? That much of a deviant? I think not. From my standpoint, others are barking up the wrong tree, looking for a physical state of some kind, when consciousness is an ongoing process of engagement between a living mind and whatever object of its notice gives a jolt sufficient to draw attention.

Loops of engagement are way more than feedback loops. Rather than stabilizers, they are disrupters, attention getters, annoyers, or announcers of success. In short, situation creators. They set the parameters of intelligence in such a configuration that arouses a meaningful response leading to a review of options and judgment of what is to be done.

As I visualize them, loops of engagement are kindlers of consciousness leading to appropriate action. They start with disturbing perceptions that create meaningful situations to which intelligence reacts with discernment in judging what plan of action to put into effect. They are mind organizers whose job is to transform perceptions into behaviors suitable to the occasion.

Essential to our humanity, none of us would get through the day without one. And probably not be likely to get through the next five seconds. I call them loops because they keep going on and on. Coming back to slightly altered situations, tweaking a little here and there, more like a helix than a circle, but running on till the job is done. Then it’s on to the next job, and the one in line after that.

Go to the store for groceries, lay out the kitchen, make dinner, serve it up, eat it, congratulate the cook, clear the table, wash the dishes, put dishes away, lay things out for breakfast. How else would we manage to get through the day? If such engagements didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

But they do exist in what William James called the stream of consciousness, the endless succession of one-thing-after-another that we dub collectively conscious life. They are our tools for building a succession of worlds about ourselves as we go through the day.

Loops of engagement are world-puzzle solvers that connect our minds to our mysterious environment, but that have to keep checking because that environment is bound to change. We can never get it just right. The world is too complex, too dynamic, too flexible, too uncertain—and our view too limited and schematic. Whatever we think it is in the instant is bound to be wrong.

So we play the game of successive approximation. Moving in the direction of certain understanding—but like the bounding hare, the world always gets away from us. The more certain we are that we understand what’s going on, the more apt we are to be wrong. Our firmest beliefs are so much foam on the waves. Life is more like splashing around in shallow water than swimming in a straight lane.

Loops of engagement are the best tool we’ve got for figuring out our situation at the moment. They never stop; they never give up; they never claim success. Like our streams of consciousness, they just keep going, until we fall into bed too tired to keep up the pursuit.

I will conclude these posts on cultural engagements with twelve episodes illustrating a few of my personal engagements as divided among four successive posts. Here are the first three.

1. Rush Week. In 1951, I was living in a fraternity in Boston as a sophomore at MIT. Early in the term, fraternities entertained prospective pledges from among the incoming freshman class. I was particularly struck by the mental acuity and good nature of a student from India. I took him around the house, played Ping-Pong with him, sat with him at lunch, and thought he made an excellent candidate.

After lunch, the president of the fraternity took me aside and told me I was doing a great job stringing the boy along, making him feel welcome, while there wasn’t a chance in hell we would pledge a dark foreigner.

My response to that news was to find an apartment near Kenmore Square and to quit the fraternity I could no longer belong to because of its Whites-only policy, which I naively hadn’t realized was part of its deep-South traditions from post-Civil-War days. I haven’t stepped into a fraternity house for sixty-four years.

2. Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz. In a recent post I mentioned coming upon a Boston Symphony performance led by Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. That was one of the most moving experiences of my college life, which I stumbled into during a Wednesday afternoon walk when I found the door open at Symphony Hall. A sandwich-board on the sidewalk announced an open rehearsal, so, out of curiosity, I went in and sat in the back row. I knew Berlioz from WGBH broadcasts, but had never been present at a live performance. Monteux raised his baton just as I took my seat.

What caught my attention was actually witnessing the different instruments and sections playing the music that I heard with my ears. It was the simultaneous presence of hearing the music and seeing its lively performance at the same time that astonished me. My eyes and ears reinforced each other, adding to an experience I had never had until that day.

It was the seeing that sticks with me, the actual display of sounds being produced through human effort. Violins, cellos, bases, brass, woodwinds, tympani—I can see them all. The standing percussionist striking the suspended chimes with a small mallet produced sounds I had never fully appreciated until then. He is with me today as I write these words, making a guest appearance in my mind, reminding me of my discovery of what “in concert” actually means.

3. Tripping on the Long Island Railroad. In Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, I took all the physics, chemistry, and math classes that were offered. By my senior year, there were no more to take. Back in Hamilton, my ninth-grade science teacher had sent home a note telling my parents that he thought I had a knack for science, and might pursue it as a career. In Seattle, I took an aptitude test to see if that was really the case. In disbelief, I looked over the bar graph of the results: I was high in arts and humanities, low in science. Stupid test! I instantly dismissed it. As a senior I went all-or-nothing, applying to MIT and no other school. For good or ill, I got in.

The first year was made up solely of meeting core requirements, with one token humanities course. In my second year I took differential equations, heading toward a major in physics—I thought acoustics sounded nice. But I ran out of steam, and decided to quit school. My mother got on my case and convinced me to see out the year. Which I grudgingly did. I went to a counsellor, and applied to Columbia in New York as a transfer student. I was scheduled for an interview on the Columbia campus, so arranged to stay with friends of my parents on Long Island the night before, and took the bus from Boston to New York, then the LIRR to Port Washington.

A memorable trip under heavy skies. I spent most of my time staring out the rain-spattered window at heavy wires strung next to the tracks on what I still think of as telegraph poles. From my perspective looking out the window, the wires rose to the level of the crossbars on successive poles, then fell in great swoops in between, rising and falling like waves mile-after-mile, putting me into a kind of hypnotic trance. I wasn’t thinking about anything—then the truth burst upon me: There is no God! There can’t be any God because I can’t square God with those wires, which are absolutely real. I was totally engaged with the rhythm of the wires strung along the tracks; there was no room for God in that experience. He was superfluous. Irrelevant. God, I saw, was a vain conceit of ancient peoples in all their innocence. It was not a rational thought, it simply came to me as a bolt out of gray skies and those up-and-down wires.

It was one of the most powerful realizations of my life. Transformative. Everything up to then culminated in those lilting wires along the Long Island Railroad. It was like a dam had burst inside me as a declaration of undoubted truth. Farewell, creator, ruler, judge, and confessor. Banished by clarity. Blessed clarity washing over and through me. Had I been that wishy-washy all those years? I abruptly discovered I was capable of independent thought. Well, not thought, really, but profound insight. I knew I was right; my entire life until then added up to that moment. Childhood fell away; everything would be different from now on.

Our brains are too puny to account for the fullness of, and variations between, our minds. We can study the brain forever and not find diamonds, electricity, tartans, boomerangs, umlauts, or inhabitable planets in far galaxies.

When we die as individuals, such things persist in our cultural repository. When all people die, then only the mind of nature will be left, and nature’s brain, which is the whole Earth itself from whose waters and soils we have risen into sunlight.

Nature and culture are unnamed lobes of the brain. We participate in them as much as we do our own thoughts. Without them, we wayfarers in our black-box vessels would not float on life’s currents. Nature and culture (including art, science, politics, economics, literature, and religion) are concepts in our minds, and memes in our cultures. We become imaginable only in their fields of influence. The initiative to engage them is up to us.

We find ourselves simply thrown here at birth by forces we do not understand any more than we do gravity. We know only that we have to stack dishes bottom to top, and that when we trip we will fall down. If we are wise, we will learn to live in gravitational fields, natural fields, cultural fields, subjective fields.

Simply put, that is both our heritage and our destiny if we are to fulfill the promise we are born to. Pitch-in and engage the best we can, that is the way. Start by opening our eyes, focusing, lifting our heads, paying attention, looking at and listening to the sights and sounds around us. Opening ourselves to the great ambient that is ours by birth, whether we discover ourselves in Mongolia, Tibet, Syria, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, Finland, or the south side of Chicago.

We will come into selfhood by starting where we are, when we are there, then moving on through nature and culture while always being true to ourselves, building on that genetic and cultural platform. How far can we go in a single lifetime? That is the question. All we can do is start out and see where our legs carry us on our great, unforeseen journey.

Culture can be as much an impediment as it is a way to the future. We have to be selective in how we follow the advice and example of our family, friends, and elders. Pick and choose, that is the way of engagement. As guided by our personal judgment acquired through years of proceeding by trial and error.

Take a step and see where it gets us. Then retreat or move ahead, or bound like a knight in a game of chess. Or even stay put where we are. We all have choices, all the time, wherever we are.

Ever rethinking, we revise and adjust our engagements. That is called growth. Learning through experience. Blazing our own trails. Being ourselves. Not who we were, but who we are on the way to becoming who we will turn out to be.

No, we can’t know in advance; we have to find out through a process of self-discovery. That is the adventure of a lifetime, the very reason we are here. Our survival depends upon it.

So, to continue my journey in this brand-new year along the loops of engagement cycling through my mind: after perception and judgment by my situated self comes the realm of planning and action, leading to my playing my role as wayfarer making my way through the serial adventures of my life.

Once all options have been compared and judgments cast, the issue then is to make and effect a plan of action. Goals are set, decisions made how to proceed, projects designed and implemented, teams and relationships formed, tools selected, skills developed and practiced—all leading to decisive moments when I act in keeping with the judgment cast so many milliseconds, hours, days, or years ago.

By the black box image, where perception treats the energy input to my mind from my surroundings, my deeds and actions direct my life’s energy output into those same surroundings as shaped in spacetime by my mind.

The transformation of that flow of sensory energy by my experience and intelligence is situated in a set of active dimensions assembled on that particular occasion in my mind. Those dimensions might include a varied mix of memories, values, emotions, impressions, meanings, motivations, understandings, imaginings, thoughts, beliefs, and so on, all as aroused on that psychic occasion within the confines of my personal black box.

As reshaped by my situated intelligence, that transformed flow of energy is directed across the gap or discrepancy between incoming perception as realized and outgoing action as intended to meet and respond to that flow in an appropriate manner.

As the link between perception and action, my conscious mind is the seat of that discrepancy, and of the judgment intended to adjust or correct it.

Our actions and doings are the most familiar stage of our loops of engagement because they are the culmination of our native intelligence doing its thing to find meaning in, and give direction to, the stream of consciousness that makes up what we can know of the parade of events in our surroundings.

Those actions and doings are the means of our wayfaring. Whether for pay or not, they are how we make our living, such as it is, as an expression of our response to the flow of energy passing through our minds.

Whether we receive pay or not tells whether we are acting primarily for ourselves or for our employers, furthering our own journeys or helping them along on theirs—or doing both at the same time. The art of living is to find a balance between the two that is mutually agreeable to both.

Other people have no direct way of reading our minds and intentions. They have only our deeds to go by in engaging us from a distance and forming a response. To an experienced observer, however, our mental processes may be partially told by what we do.

What we “do” includes speech acts, facial expressions, gestures, bodily postures, dress, grooming, poise, vocal rhythm, presence, style, and all the other signs we give off when we act. Which are the same signs we interpret when forming impressions of those we engage.

Our actions flow in several channels at once, many being largely unconscious, yet all originate in our mental processes nonetheless. In that sense, all human activity is to some degree expressive of the inner states within our personal black boxes, whether we send such messages deliberately or not.



Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.    [With eleven photos.]

Fallen trees are the bane of any forester because they are “wasted” wood. But in a forever-wild preserve, they are just one more stage in the life of a tree. Their job now is not to add new growth or host populations of insects and birds but to build soil. Every generation of forest trees thrives on the remains of those who have gone before.

To observe the transformation of solid wood into fertile soil is a lesson in recycling and regeneration. Not only for trees but for forests complete with microorganisms, worms, insects, reptiles, birds, and wildlife in general. For what I call wildness as the characteristic state of terrestrial life.

I am fortunate in having access to a forever-wild preserve, where I have taken the following pictures, starting with an old birch with one last limb still connected to moisture in the soil, still supporting photosynthesis in its dwindling quota of leaves. Then illustrating stages of decay until old stems become one with the Earth from which they sprouted roughly a century ago. Fallen trees are as much an integral part of a forest as standing trees are for they are the future. Where do seedlings take root but in the duff on the forest floor made from fallen needles, leaves, and remains of ancient trees?

P1010680 96-FTrees-1P1010615 96-FTrees-2P1010703 96-FTrees-3P1010656 96-FTrees-4 P1010945 96-FTrees-5 P1010627 96-FTrees-6P1010663 96-FTrees-7P1010944 96-FTrees-8P1010959 96-FTrees-9P1010633 96-FTrees-10P1010970 96-FTrees-11

Not neat, groomed, and pretty perhaps, but a forest doing its own work in adding new substance to old soils, not the work of mankind in cutting that substance off the land. While taking these pictures, I was accompanied by birds darting through the woods, insects, mushrooms rising from damp soil, shrews scuttling in every direction—all beneficiaries of forests that lived long before their time. Today is not made of brand-new stuff, but is built from the recycled detritus of yesterday. That is the secret of wildness:  How to turn what was into what is, what is into what is to be.

Documenting such progressions is one of the joyful engagements of my later life. Why else am I here if not to bear witness to what a long series of life situations has taught me in such brushes with wildness as these? Our home planet is doing its work all around us; our job is not to remake the Earth to our specifications, but to fit ourselves into a program that has built the world we are born to from scratch over the past 4.5 billion years. That is, to reassert and celebrate the wildness of our own minds, which we can begin by respecting the wilds around us.

Sweet woodland dreams. I remain y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.     [Three photos.]

I’m not sure what wildness is, but it certainly isn’t a version of chaos. I am fascinated by the dark side of nature, the collapse, crumbling, decay, and death of all living beings. And from the ooze or ashes, the rise of wholly new beings made of the same atoms, but living new lives. Wildness implies the recycling of old lives into new. There is a system to it not based on preservation of individual beings but on inevitable change that leads to unimagined orders of other individuals. Life in the wild leads to inevitable decay, which in turn generates surprising forms of new life. I guess that’s just basic biology, but in my experience biology seems concerned with birth-growth-death, but stops short of the afterlife sure to follow that brief sequence of events.

Spending as much time on remote islands as I do, I keep coming across examples of new life springing from discarded generations of old life. I bring it up because that’s what I seem to notice and take pictures of. To be engaged with. What I call wildness, the process that produces new lives from old. It strikes me that wildness is trying to tell me something, and I am here to find out what that message might be.

Wildness, that is, is much in my consciousness these days. My mind is given over to it, even though I don’t know what it is. So I keep trying to capture its image whenever I come across it. In a way, I have become an agent of wildness, doing its bidding—without knowing what it wants of me.

Take, for example, this picture I took last week of Indian pipes springing from damp soil amid fallen pine and cedar needles.

P1010433 96 The organic molecules in the layers of needles on the forest floor are decaying, creating the soil from which a wholly different species arises. For this to happen, the soil must be damp, so water is essential to wildness. And enzymes must be present to break those molecules into their constituent amino acids, which can then be recombined to form proteins of a different sort altogether. What I know is that it happens. And that I am part of the same process—both my origin and my demise. Maybe that’s why I am so taken with wildness, because I am wild in the same sense myself.

Here’s another example.

P1010347 96Here, the remains of a crab lie on a bed of decaying wood and leaves beneath the branches of the first rank of trees up from shore, where the crab more properly belongs. I don’t know who killed the crab, brought it here, and ate it. Could be a crow, maybe an otter (otters spend the night near this spot). Whatever it was, it was more interested in the body cavity than the legs. Now the carcass is left to mix into the soil with the decaying wood and leaves, where its calcium will contribute to the coming generation of new life eventually to emerge on this site. Wildness in the act, doing its thing, not contributing to the vast pool of entropy, but to a new wave of unspecified life. Whatever is going on, the photograph is proof of my fascination and engagement with the process.

One last example.

P1010439-96 Several slugs eating a mushroom, nothing new in that. Except the slugs themselves are part of the wildness cycle, along with the mushroom, the soil it springs from, and the detritus that built up that soil. We think of ourselves as individuals, but we eat other individuals in the process of becoming and sustaining ourselves—eat, eat, eat, every day of our lives. And at some point die our one death, when we surrender our hard-won substance to those next in line. Nothing goes to waste, that is the law of wildness. It takes life to make life. It’s in our contract, and we have no choice but to obey.

Those are the sorts of thoughts that come upon me these days, with which I duly engage. Just one more dimension of consciousness, which this blog is about. Future posts will likely concern my engagement with wildness, and include photos such these. To understand where I am coming from, go back and read Reflections 281-300. Y’rs truly, –Steve fr. Planet Earth

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Life of whom or what? Life of the Quaker Institute for the Future summer seminar 2012 held at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. In particular, signs of that life on one day, Friday, June 8, 2012. I witnessed that life because I was there with my brand-new Panasonic Lumix ZS15 digital camera.

Ed Snyder’s was the only presentation on that day. His topic was: “How to move forward from the current system of material consumption to no-growth and environmental sustainability while providing equity and a decent life for all.” No, not very catchy, but the talk focused on the issues that brought everyone into that particular room every day this past week—from California, Texas, Utah, Louisiana, Kentucky, Maine, New Brunswick, Canada and, via Skype, Montreal.

Here’s what it looked like, in the order I took the photos:



Location—College of the Atlantic campus, Bar Harbor: (back row) Steve, Jim, Leonard; (middle row) Ed, Laura, Charlie, Keith, Shelley, Phil; (front row) Barry, Gray. (Not shown) David in Montreal.

As to what was happening in those shots: Ed was giving his presentation on the demise of life on planet Earth; the rest of us were trying to keep up with him. Ed’s talk was a description of possible courses we’ve not taken so far. Those routes (in Ed’s own words) involve “nonviolence, cooperation, community, and bottom-up decision making with emphasis on quality of life rather than continuing consumption of goods.” The course we’ve been heading is a dark and dangerous one, pointing us toward reefs, shoal waters, and the end of the world as we know it.

The beauty of this day in the life of the seminar came in contemplating the ten stages of the journey Ed laid out before us in terms of projects and cooperative engagements we could undertake to get ourselves back on the less traveled route to a sustainable Earth. The task was daunting but doable. We were being offered a plan, and in that plan, stage by stage, we found hope.

This was exactly why we’d gathered in Bar Harbor, so each of us would give a presentation from a different perspective that, collectively, would lay out the sequence of navigational skills we’d need to correct our course. Ed, master helmsman that he is, was giving us the tools we’d need to do the job.

This is my fifth blog based on the seminar. One more to go. This day was too intense to put into words, so I offer pictures instead. You should have been there.

As ever, I remain y’r vigilant friend, –Steve

(Copyright © 2010)

Speaking of writers who have influenced my life, as I did in my last post (Reflection 168: Edelman on Consciousness), I woke up this morning thinking of my debt to Jerome Bruner who, twenty-eight years ago, had a lasting influence on my writing and conscious mind. I offer the following sample of something I wrote then in which Bruner’s ideas helped me weave strands developing in my personal consciousness into a coherent pattern. I see now that the very words I wrote are a symbolic example of what Bruner was trying to convey.

Since I’m quoting myself, I’ll skip the block quotes I generally use to signify words spoken or written by others. The following is taken from the last chapter of Metaphor to Mythology by S. Perrin, 1982, printed by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983. Yes, the language comes from that other planet I lived on at the time.


As Jerome Bruner states, “the mythologically instructed community provides its members with a library of scripts upon which the individual may judge the internal drama of his multiple identities” (see note (1) below), while, at the same time, certain heroic individuals themselves can contribute their respective scripts to the communal library. In this way the rich variety of personal heritages present within a community can achieve a symbolic (gestural, dramatic) kind of unity that lends support to belief in a common [mythology]. If different members of a community enact similar gestures on similar occasions, is it not safe to conclude that their intentions are also the same? It is the function of our mythologies to turn that question into an affirmation so that, in spite of our individual episodes of disillusionment and ineffective communication, we can find a general agreement between our own gestures as meant and the gestures we encounter in our community as performances underwritten by a supposedly similar set of meanings. Thus do we assent to a common mythology as a set of possibilities for self-realization in which we are able to recognize not only our own heritage of attained identities, but (on the basis of gestures we have never performed) the promise of other identities we have yet to fulfill. We are completed by our mythologies, for in them we find the complement to our own participation, finding innocence where we contribute gestures informed by competence, and competence where we volunteer our innocence. The outcome is that we do not picture ourselves as trapped within the limitations established by our heritage, nor restricted to those possibilities for being which we are capable of realizing right now, but as open to a future level of attainment that surpasses either so that we have a possibility of becoming more than we have been, more than we are.

In other words, by completing our being and our heritage of meaning, a mythology beckons to us as a revelation of possibilities for becoming, a promise of enrichment or of growth, because it holds out to us a limitless series of gestures which we ourselves have never performed, but which we believe ourselves capable of performing with appropriate (but as yet unknown) intentions. That hope, and that challenge, is the essential gift of community, the gift of becoming more than our heritage suggests, more than we presently are, allowing us to believe that we are not imprisoned within the confines of the past, nor trapped by the few dimensions of being we are able to appreciate right now, but are capable of fulfilling a greater destiny than we can even understand. Community does not gives us ourselves, but it holds out the promise of our own self-transcendence by completing our competence and our innocence with the suggestion of other competences and other degrees of innocence than we at present realize. Even in a face-to-face encounter with another, we each become aware of other possibilities for being and meaning as intimated by our exchange of gestures, and we serve to complete one another’s limited range of experience so that together we form a community of expanded possibility, even though we contribute to—and draw from—those possibilities in different ways.

If . . . we look at social reality as being fundamentally symbolic, there is no guarantee that any two individuals will regard an exchange of symbolic gestures from a single perspective, according to the same authority, or with identical degrees of conviction. In fact, given all evidence for our differences, it can never be assumed that agreement upon certain gestures as “symbolic” carries any certainty of agreement among the meanings to which they might refer within our separate streams of experience. For though we may come together in community, we come as particular individuals, not as some statistically-leveled “common man” who embodies the stereotyped ideals of the abstract whole. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

In his life-form the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man. He is limited either as male or as female; at any given period of his life he is again limited as child, youth, mature adult, or ancient; furthermore, in his life role he is necessarily specialized as craftsman, trades-man, servant, or thief, priest, leader, wife, nun, or harlot; he cannot be all. Hence the totality—the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can be only an organ (2).

The synchronized exchange of gestures, then, allows us to insert ourselves into the mythic text of our community by assuming the role of specialized parts or organs at one [pole of an interactive exchange] that loops between our concrete acts and the communal tradition into which they are received as meaningfully intended symbols in apparent conformity with the accepted grammar of our shared linguistic expectations.

In verbal exchange every sentence is a complex series of gestures (involving relations of pitch, stress, juncture, and phonetic units) as the existential performance of a set of mutually embedded meanings spread across a range of abstract levels (from the ostensively present and concrete to the referentially conceptual and abstract), a series of gestures themselves embedded in a context of other (situational, verbal, and nonverbal) gestures subject to construal by each respective participant. The relation between possible gestures and possible situations is dictated by the traditional grammar of the community within which the dialogue is taking place, so that language is not only a medium of communal mythology, but is itself an aspect of that mythology. Language is something in which we believe and to which we must commit ourselves—at the same time we commit our meanings to it. It is possible only insofar as it represents a convergence of our trust and of our cunning, our credence and our reservation.

That is, we must be naive enough to place our faith in language as a factor of our mythology while, at the same time, we must be canny enough to employ language as a medium for that same mythology. And the solution to that most amazing of all paradoxes lies in the skill with which we attempt to balance the one against the other—our innocence against our cleverness, our gullibility against our guile—within a synchronous dialogue in which mythology and language trade off against each other, first one as concrete figure within the subsidiary context of the other, then vice versa, allowing us to believe in our mythology as we practice our language, and to believe in our language as we practice our mythology while, at the same time, we extend those same beliefs and practices to embrace our partner who herself must complete our language and our mythology. It is this double sense of completion—of ourselves and of each other—that makes communal experience possible as a performance in which each participant does for the other what she cannot do for herself, bringing about a unification of language and mythology through their shared disjunction. When you speak I surrender my mythology to you so that I do not hear your words but experience your meanings directly. I embrace you with my innocence in order to appreciate your competence, and when I respond you do the same for me. Together we complete each other, achieving our separate identities within a community of activity to which we each contribute belief and practice in like degree.

Innocent belief and clever practice are, in fact, the two poles that Bruner discovers in all mythology:

From . . . early myths there emerge two types of mythic plot: the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness—the former being a kind of Arcadian ideal, requiring the eschewal of complexity and awareness, the latter requiring the cultivation of competence almost to the point of guile (3).

Every individual myth represents a variation upon the possibilities for equilibrium offered by these two poles, and the mythic hero who exemplifies a particular possibility for their integration serves as a paragon for the instruction of those who would strive for excellence within a particular community of belief:

The manner in which superior knowledge shows itself changes: the ideal of the crafty warrior, the wise man, the interpreter of the word of God, the Renaissance omni-competent, the wily merchant, the financial wizard, the political genius. It is true that in some way each is suspect, it is also true that each is idealized in his own way. . . . New versions arise to reflect the ritual and practice of each era—the modifications of the happiness of innocence and the satisfaction of competence (4).

The dynamic quality of superior knowledge, its essentially evolutionary character, demonstrates that a mythology is not a fixed system within which individuals are restricted to certain traditional ways of practice and belief. Rather, a mythology is a vehicle of transcendence, a way by which individual and community alike can undertake the hazardous journey of becoming. Its function is not to hold a people back, but to encourage it to propel itself forward, competently yet innocently into the altered conditions of the future. A mythology, in fact, is a miraculous aspect of biology that enables an entire population to base its forward thrust upon its most striking examples of past success while, at the same time, making allowance for the inevitable expansion and improvement—and ultimate replacement—of those same examples.

To function effectively in this way, a mythology should be allowed to grow. Its emphasis should be upon current affirmation rather than on preservation of the past. . . . A mythology is a progressive system of belief that seeks out successive states of dis-illusion in which the old innocence continually gives way to an improved sense of competence which, in turn, makes possible the attainment of a renewed state of innocence. The alternative is exemplified by the French Academy’s attempt to preserve the purity of the French language by withholding its sanction from all neologisms and words of foreign extraction. The conceit implied by that endeavor seems to demand the suppression of all evidence that the French of the 1860s was not the language of God the father, but itself evolved—as did Rumanian and Catalan, from a foreign tongue!

Each combination of competence and innocence represents the achievement of a particular heroic individual who shows others the way to obtain the “right” balance between cunning and acceptance, meaning and existence. In fact every individual within her [interactive] involvement with her culture is at once a free and independent person who only abstractly can be taken as a representative of her community and, at the same time, an amorphous mass of possibilities whose realization is entirely dependent upon the concrete gifts she receives from the mythology granting her an identity. Each of us, that is, is simultaneously an existential child, and affirmation of pure and innocent participation in being, and at the same time is a mature and sagacious elder of the tribe, a bearer of tradition and of wisdom. When we speak, we strive for resonance between these two aspects of our [conscious] experience so our words may convey a sense of conviction that we have managed to equate our heroism with our vulnerability and thus we stand forth as an integrated whole in which every aspect of experience is represented according to a dynamic balance of our longing and our accomplishment, a synthesis that makes our words accessible to our partners in dialogue because they seek a similar resonance.

A mythology is perpetuated by acts of mutual accompaniment that allow us to form a community of synchronous affirmation. My innocence affirms the competence with which you express your thoughts through symbolic gestures, just as my own competence affirms your innocence as a confederate in a shared mythology. We complement one another so that through our joint participation in mythology we are able to achieve a being together in meaning. We employ every aspect of that mythology, every symbol, in two senses: as a concrete linguistic statement of our being, and an abstract mythological reference to our meaning. By looping these symbols in a chain that leads from my being to your meaning and back again via your being to my meaning, we align ourselves in a community of gesture and belief that affirms the possibilities of our individual experience even as we affirm its superior possibilities for our inter-subjective conjunction. This mutual affirmation of individual and communal possibilities is discussed by Bruner in the following terms:

I would like to submit that the manner in which man has striven for competence and longed for inno-cence has reflected the controlling myths of the community. The medieval scholar, the Florentine prince, the guild craftsman alike, as well as the withdrawn monastic of Thomas a Kempis and the mendicant of St. Francis—all of these are deeply involved with the myths of innocence and com-petence, and are formed by them. . . . It is not simply society that patterns itself on the idealizing myths, but unconsciously it is the individual man as well who is able to structure his internal clamor of identities in terms of prevailing myths. Life then produces myth and finally imitates it (5).

Mythology alerts us to the possibility of attaining heroic stature and identity while receiving our creative gestures as a per-formance of our own heroic strivings. The hero . . . is the founder within us, the innovator who furthers the spirit of becoming within a mythology by questing after the expansion of the old tradition and the novel fulfillment of each individual’s heritage. By warranting our creative natures, a mythology commits itself to its own renovation and development through our fulfillment of its prospects. It holds before us “a corpus of images and identities and models that provides the pattern to which growth may aspire—a range of metaphoric identities” (6), so that our innovative competence is encouraged and the attainment of new horizons made possible.


How strange to read over the shoulder of my younger self as a writer. Strange in that I was different then, but the same as I am today, pursuing the same quarry within the human mind, seat of all human experience. Mythology is alive and well in the recesses of consciousness, the same as it ever was, serving the same purpose of aligning the individual with her culture, calibrating her mind in socially-acceptable terms, transforming each unique person into “one of us,” providing her with a social identity, much as the State Department provides her with a passport so she can explain to the Customs officer who she truly is.

My current interest in innocence and competence is as broad categorizations of states of consciousness and the gestures (actions) by which they engage the world of objects and other conscious beings. Innocence is a kind of openness to—or even fearlessness of—events. It is the state of mind necessary for learning what the current situation has to offer. Competence is the state of mind adequate to performing appropriately in a variety of situations. Competence is suitable to every occasion; innocence is the gateway to experience in the here and now. In psychological terms, competence prepares for assimilation, innocence for accommodation, the two together equipping us to engage the world on either its terms or ours. Where competence categorizes the world as it sees fit, innocence is ready to try its hand at learning to categorize as a means of reaching out to the world. Experience is a balance between these two approaches, the willingness to learn and the willingness to show what you can do.

To me, personally, these are aspects of one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness—how we make sense of experience by categorizing it one way or another. Expect more on that topic in future posts. For now, thank you, Jerome Bruner, for the assist.



(1) Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” in Murray, Henry A., ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Braziller, 1960, 281).

(2) Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 382f., quoted in Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” 280.

(3) Same as (1).

(4) Same source, 282.

(5) Same source, 282f.

(6) Same as (2).


Reflection 147: Steep Climb

September 26, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

Both hard workers, Carole and I allow ourselves only one four-day vacation a year—when Maine summer glides into fall. These days we always seek the same destination, a small island on the coast. This year I rowed us over at high tide on a day with light winds. We unloaded our gear where we could get onto the rocks, then I moored the boat in a small, sheltered cove. Trouble was, the tide was so high, I couldn’t get out of the cove by walking along the shore past cliffs and branches reaching over the water. The only route was up the steep wooded bank at the back of the cove. So up I went on all fours, grabbing a limb here, bracing my knee there, willing my body to rise vertically through a tangle of sharp branches lusting after my flesh. Calculating each move, watching for sticks aimed at my eyes, I fitted myself to the terrain as if it had grown up around me. Though I didn’t belong there, I made as if these were my native haunts. The logic of the place sank in, and by the time I got to the top of the bank, I was an old hand. Four nights later, I had this dream:

I am at a gathering of college alumni. I recognize a lot of people, but don’t really fit in that scene. Everyone seems stuck in his ways. Feeling like a stranger, I excuse myself and head down a steep flight of stairs, then walk along a gravel road, which rises steeply ahead, like the great wave in Hokusai’s view of Fuji. It is night. The pitch becomes vertical. I have no choice but to scramble among the vegetation on the side of the road, groping with my hands, grabbing stalks, bracing my feet, forcing myself upward. At the top of the rise, I am in the laboratory of a distinguished scientist, surrounded by elaborate research apparatus. He is at the end of his tether; his training has got him this far, but he can’t move ahead. I tell him he has to die to his discipline and accomplishments if he wants to get beyond them. I demonstrate what I mean by jumping into the well of a deep pit. I find myself sprawled at the bottom, among a group of my peers—those who think as I do. We lie there trading new thoughts among ourselves, wounded but alive, planning next moves.

Hokusai View of Fuji


(Copyright © 2009)

My personal brand of consciousness is the ongoing engagement between me and whatever phenomena serve as objects of my attention. My consciousness belongs to me and no other; it is of something else, what I call images or phenomena. Phenomena are not likenesses or representations of the world so much as they are products of the interaction between my brain and the world. The world I live in—my proprietary world of consciousness—is made up of me as subject and various phenomena as objects of current attention. So right from the start my world appears divided into two realms, subject and object, attender and the attended to, what William James called “the me” and “the not-me.”

Yet I would say that both subject and object are products of one and the same consciousness, so there’s only my view of me and my view of the world, which are not at all the same as myself and the world considered objectively. Objective self and objective world are constructs I build in my mind on the basis of the cumulative experience of phenomena available to me over a lifetime. So I live—as each one of us lives—in a unified world of personal consciousness without borders or divisions—the one and only world of our personal consciousness. That other world, the supposedly “real” or outside world, can only be a matter of inference and fleeting conjecture. Without doubt it is there, but what we can know of it is restricted to what the phenomenal versions in our minds say it is, which is a very intimate kind of hearsay, so not wholly reliable to say the least. James, for instance, says this in his chapter on Attention in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word. (Page 402.)

Unedited by consciousness, the “utter chaos” of the outer world would overwhelm us. So in reducing that world to phenomena, consciousness saves the day.

Every one knows [James goes on] what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. (Page 403-404.)

But phenomena, I would say, are more drastically altered than merely being selected by our faculty of attention seems to suggest. Perception guided by personal interest and selective attention performs a major overhaul and rebuilding job in cutting the world down to a size we can deal with. Nothing about a phenomenon is as it might be in the world. Energy in the visible spectrum is reduced to a restricted palette of colors, wholly dismissing ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, along with X-rays, gamma rays, radio waves, and the many other orders of energetic radiation impinging on us wholly undetected and unappreciated. By the time phenomena emerge in consciousness, the larger portion of energy in the universe has gone missing. What little makes it through our perceptual apparatus to become a phenomenon in the language of consciousness is transmogrified into something other than what it is on its own. The upshot being, in James’ words:

Suffice it meanwhile that each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit. (Page 424.)

Which opens the way for me now to stride up to the mike and make my point. Living in worlds of our own making as we do, we typically direct our attention as if upon the mysterious world itself while, in truth, all we have to go on are the very phenomena we create for our personal use. I mean to suggest in this post—and in my blog as a whole—that a wholly different understanding of the lives we lead results from taking responsibility for our own seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting as represented in personal consciousness in order to, 1) better understand ourselves as makers of our own worlds, and 2) relate more effectively to others who devote their lives to doing exactly the same thing on the basis of their unique take on the world they actually inhabit in personal consciousness.

That is, as long as we give all credit (and blame) to the world for the lives we lead, we are trapped in the illusion that we can know the real world as it is in-and-of itself, when that world is a complete mystery to us. We make better use of our lives, and the lives of those around us, by living life as the great artwork we make of it—the work we are creating for ourselves at this instant in a universe we can only dimly comprehend. The miracle of consciousness—directed at its own foibles and achievements as it is—is that it is wholly self-reflexive. It is turned on itself, not the world. All we have to work with is the phenomena in our own minds. These phenomena are precisely what we should try to grasp in meaningful terms in order to live our lives with as much compassion and understanding as we are able. 

I have gotten to the point where I can say such things with a straight face after confronting my consciousness on a daily basis for thirty years now, and posting ten-months’ findings to this blog. These ideas are not sold in stores or written in books. Trouble is, we are living out ideas formulated by Aristotle and furthered by the church and academia for over 2,000 years. It is next to impossible to question the basic assumptions on which our schooling is founded, the same assumptions suporting the natural attitude by which we gaze on the world and believe we are seeing what is actually there without intervention from any sensory apparatus coming between ourselves and the scene we think of as before us when it is actually in us the whole time.

In the 20th century, behavioral psychologists, wanting to believe we were all automatons controlled by our environments, made an enemy of consciousness and denied it had any influence on behavior. Now cognitive neuroscientists are saying our brains work like computers, and information processing is the key to the mind. Others have viewed the mind as a clockwork, steam engine, hologram—whatever the going metaphor. And generations of students believe what they are currently being told in class, and dedicate their lives to spreading their views, just as theologians spread theirs as higher capital-T Truth accessible solely to prophets and holy men.

The revolution in how we view consciousness is upon us, just as the Reformation in religious thinking was made possible by invention of the printing press that made possible distribution of sacred texts translated into the language people could interpret for themselves without aid from any intervening priesthood. Subsequent invention of paper, pencil, typewriter, and computer continued the advance of informed interpretation of phenomena. Now the Internet has the potential of ushering in a new revolution in the understanding of consciousness itself by enabling people to get their minds together so they can compare experiences without interference from established institutions having to approve the interaction beforehand. In its current stage of development, FaceBook tends to be light and breezy because people are striving to make good impressions instead of using it as a tool for greater understanding of themselves and their friends. Blogosphere, ditto, everyone out to show how insightful their commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries really are. I’m a blogger, I should know.

Except, my whole thrust is to be true to my personal consciousness as one sample of what consciousness can be about. In posting to my blog 142 times, I have come to see that intentionality—the consciousness of objects—can be broken down into consciousness of situations, projects, goals, judgments, problems, priorities, issues, novel experiences, anxieties, interpretations, and so on. These are samples of what makes consciousness sit up and pay attention—what evolution has made us as subjects concerned about in order to act as meaningfully and effectively as we can. Which is no different from what human life is largely about.

It struck me this morning that relationships based on what actually occupies our attention rather than what we claim in order to make a good impression is the way to build compassionate relationships based on truth and reality, not personal mythology.

We don’t need to prove our merit or our worth by buying stuff, impressing others, going to fancy schools, sprinkling certain in-words throughout our conversations—that is, by pretending we are something that, under our clothing and our skins, we inherently are not. Good-by UPS trucks, big box stores, advertising, publicity, investments, banks—all those good things we rely on to create the illusion we are something other than what we are. So much for the economy devoted to shoring up pretense and illusion. So much for politicians pandering to their constituencies on the basis of identities they assume for the sake of making a good impression. The Internet has the potential of bypassing all this superstructure created by so-called civilized institutions. Of enabling people to get together on the basis of the searches they conduct to find out who they are and what they can do in this life—the one life they have to enjoy, or not.

What many cultures have found and we often overlook is that human happiness depends on relating to others in order that we do things together, cooperatively, not in competition. I am not talking altruism here, or self-righteousness. I am talking about me being me and you being you—providing a strong basis for getting together on a workable basis, not using each other to advance our respective unspoken agendas.

There are too many problems in the world to waste time in hot pursuit of illusions. That is what got us where we are today. We need to cut through all that and finally get to the point—which consciousness itself will reveal if we attend to it. Self-reflexive consciousness is not the same thing as staring at your navel. Consciousness, it turns out, is the source of all we can learn in this life and all wisdom. Your navel is just a scar to confirm you got your start inside another person who shared joint responsibility for your conception and birth. Got it. Move on. Inside, not outside. To the font of all experience, our personal consciousness, controlled by personal attention, controlled by personal passions and interests, controlled by the will to live as only we are able—by being fully ourselves. Believe me, consciousness-watching is a learned skill that takes well over ten-thousand hours to get good at. I am not suggesting we quit the race and party; I am suggestion we get down to work appropriate to our gifts.

Let’s agree to attend to life as it is given to us, not to the illusion of life presented to us by others. Let’s make use of our primary asset in living a life—personal consciousness. Accepting that as wholly our doing will tell us who we are, warts and all. Knowing who we are, we can relate on the solid ground of being ourselves without pretending to be anyone else. True learning and discovery await us inside, not outside. Especially not in any institution dedicated to selling illusions for profit. Consciousness is ours to use (or not) in understanding ourselves; the choice is ours. And the same for those around us understanding themselves. Relationships based on shared understanding are the way of the future. In the past we have dedicated ourselves to tearing down the Earth for the sake of fictitious benefits. Now we can build ourselves up to be worthy of the Earth that has provided for us all along.

Two Skiers