(Copyright © 2009)

We recognize from the diversity of people we meet that consciousness must come in a wide variety of colors (flavors, patterns, classes) because, though no two of us are outwardly or inwardly the same, we effectively ally ourselves with groups having similar characteristics. I use the term idioms of consciousness in referring to the different sorts of mental configurations I infer from the types of behavior people exhibit in similar circumstances or situations.

Human consciousness is shaped by a strange blend of natural and cultural influences. “Strange” in that the fine-grained biological structure of the brain allows ancient natural and modern cultural awareness to exist side-by-side in mutual yet wholly unpredictable relationships. Who, for example, can foresee which of us will be driven by financial setbacks to commit suicide? Who can understand cultures that routinely amputate with a stone knife the clitoris and inner labia of young women to appease the sexual insecurity of their future husbands? Who finds it rational behavior for political parties to pitch into each other because of their respective stands on abortion? And to conclude this short sampling of mysteries of the conscious mind, who is not stunned by the irony in fighting wars as a way of making a living?

But there it is: one part of the mind at odds with another. As I have said before, consciousness plays by the rules it derives from the situation it finds itself in at the time. Different situations as perceived, different rules, different behaviors chosen or tolerated. We entertain an odd mix of drives, judgments, values, and awareness, and must sort them out as best we can. When public figures don’t do a very good job of managing their conflicted parts—think Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer, Bernard Madoff, teens who risk unprotected sex, or mothers of octuplets—their failings make news, often bigtime because we crave examples teaching us how to avoid the pity and ridicule they invite.

But consciousness, because of its unfathomable mixing of culture and biology, is inherently ridiculous in itself. Nobody could have planned such a creature as we turn out to be. We claim to be wise, but seldom make sense to ourselves. Culture changes too rapidly for our biology to keep up. The best we can do is recognize our personal balance of strengths and weaknesses, accept it for what it is, then look around for others similarly inclined (or condemned) to live out the same idiom or predicament. Banding with them, perhaps we can stretch our chances of surviving a little longer.

An idiom is a manner of expression peculiar to a group of people, so an idiom of consciousness is the underlying structure of the mind giving rise to that outward manner. Other terms for sorting people into types based on inferred mental structures are temperament, personality, character, profession, traits, creativity, originality, or even pathology. Some aspects of these human differences are innate, others are learned through study, training, or imitation of those we admire. However we acquire them, our manners of being in the world reflect the integral makeup of personal consciousness by which we become known to ourselves and to groups with which we associate.

The makeup of our particular idiom varies considerably in relying on different facets of consciousness such as acting, perceiving, feeling, thinking, interpreting, judging, and speaking. Some of us are doers, others are noticers, empathizers, thinkers, seekers, arbiters, talkers, listeners. Externalizing these personal traits, we sort ourselves into social roles we feel comfortable with, some becoming nurses, machinists, carpenters, or astronauts, others salesmen, teachers, hermits, poets, drug lords, or warriors.

The subjects we study in school are aimed at exercising different facets of consciousness so that we develop an ease not only in dealing with specific tasks but more in harnessing our own mental powers. The disciplines of higher education appeal to the different idioms of consciousness by which we choose to develop ourselves and the lifestyles we aspire to. Part of our animal nature, as Aristotle pointed out, is political, complementing other parts which may be caring, curious, hungry, athletic, artistic, philosophical, verbally fluent, or spiritual—forming together with other faculties of consciousness a particular idiom for being true to ourselves and our group in a diversified world.

To take an example, organized religion is one idiom of consciousness providing a framework for being in the world. It governs not only thought and perception, but a mix of expectancy, judgment, feeling, and meaning in experience. Too, religion translates states of consciousness into suitable behaviors, converting faith and intentions into the disciplined and habitual practice of a religious way of life.

As an idiom of culture, religion is not inherent in biological consciousness itself but is learned through experience largely modeled on the behavior of others in social situations such as gatherings for celebration and worship. Stemming from organized cultural events, religion has a history often going back hundreds or thousands of years to a beginning in the consciousness of a particular individual who conceived the idea of a right way of being in the world in response to formative lifetime events. The development of that right way of being is told in the sacred historical narrative by which it is revealed to new generations, narratives such as the Torah, New Testament, Koran, Bhagavad-Gita, or Book of Mormon.

People of the various sacred books tend to be people who believe what they read in (or hear read aloud from) works they take to be authoritative. Such beliefs are reinforced and acted out in prescribed rites and rituals, ensuring harmony between the inner world of consciousness and the world of action. The point being to act in the world as one is allowed or expected to act, letting biology and culture—no matter how conflicted—come to terms. The illogic of the resulting balance must be accepted on faith as a sign of true belief—or denied as farfetched—whichever the case. Either way, the idiom of a particular belief system serves to bind the faithful to the group while at the same time excluding nonbelievers.

Quakers, for instance, emerged during the mid-seventeenth- century English Civil Wars when the established social order of monarchy-church-gentry-judiciary was briefly overturned by a Parliament and populace in revolt. Charles I was executed, Oliver Cromwell made lord protector. But the realm was accustomed to monarchy, so following an eleven-year interlude, Charles II succeeded his father to the throne, and order was restored much as before. For budding Quakers, the issue was inequality and social injustice imposed by the alliance of those claiming to be superior to the average person. The idiom Quakers adopted was the religious claim to equality before God as revealed in the recently translated King James Bible. That equality was not restricted to steeple houses of a particular denomination, to one sex or social class, and was not administered by the gentry or royal courts. Leader George Fox summed up the essence of Quaker belief in 1674: 

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you. Then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savour and a blessing.

Coupling a drive toward equality to the sacred authority of the new translation of the Bible, Quakers invented a new idiom of consciousness that served their need for social justice and respect. The notion that God is present in every person cut across class distinctions, rendering them invalid from a Quaker point of view. Asserting their self-declared equality by refusing to remove their hats as a sign of honor to their supposed superiors, they bore the wrath of those higher up in the traditional social hierarchy, and were thrown in prison to suffer the rewards of cultural noncompliance. And suffer they did, not only indignity, but deprivation, illness, pain, and death. In many cases, the attempted balance between self-integrity and physical wellbeing was self-destructive. Yet as a matter of faith, the founding Quakers stuck to the defining principles—the new idiom—that turbulent times called up in them. And their successors have kept that idiom of equality and social justice alive to this day.

The essence of Quaker consciousness is respect for the equal dignity of all persons. This leads to social actions in support of the deprived, downtrodden, defeated, and destitute. And beyond these, in broad support for disarmament and world peace. Two forces came together in the mid-seventeenth century that gave rise to this idiom of awareness: wide distribution of the King James Bible, and harsh social injustice inflicted by the privileged classes in England upon their supposed inferiors. Quakers are only one example from the spectrum of Protestant sects that arose in common response to the top-heavy social structure in England at that time under a Catholic monarch who favored hierarchical (trickle-down) solutions to state problems.

What history often leaves out (because there is no adequate record) is the transformation in personal consciousness spurred by such times, giving rise to wholly new idioms in response to the intolerable imbalance between cultural and biological forces in the minds of the people. Idioms of consciousness require solutions in the here-and-now. They cannot afford to wait for evolution to come to their aid. Stress spurs new alignments within consciousness itself, allowing new priorities, new attitudes, new judgments, new interpretations—all leading to new idioms, new paradigms, new ways of being, and new actions on the world stage.

As I see it 360 years after the execution of Charles I, I live in a similar stage of cultural collapse as I write these words, a stage that can only be redressed by an idiom of consciousness that can deal collectively with economic injustice, global warming, pollution, excessive consumption of Earth resources, human over-population, wastefulness, abuse by powerful corporations, and failed governance. Has consciousness made headway since 1649? Certainly it has changed, but whether it has advanced is an open question. Are things better for people around the globe? For the privileged few, certainly, at high cost to the rest.

True history is written in the minds of the people—all the people. Narratives by those in power don’t tell the whole truth. Barack Obama is making history today as a man with a new idiom of consciousness in a position of power. But he is not the whole story. He cannot improve the climate of our times by himself, even with the administration he appointed to back him up. It takes a committed nation to raise a new nation. I am part of that nation, as are you, and you, and you.

So here we are with our shopworn, tired old models of consciousness, in an era crying out for new ways of being in our neighborhoods, our nations, and around the Earth. Given what we know today, the challenge is to reconcile the inconsistencies between our biological and cultural consciousness so to forge a new mind adapted to living in what we call the 21st century, but is really closer to life’s four-millionth century on this long-suffering planet.

I know we can do it—find that new idiom within ourselves, the new alignment between facets of consciousness. We’re working on it, each of us doing what she can. But as of now, whether our collective wisdom and experience can produce the new paradigm in time to stave off pending disaster is unknown. If we fail for lack of effort or imagination, so be it, let that be our epitaph: THEY HAD GOOD INTENTIONS.

Lunar Eclipse-72

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

The center of the spectacle is straight overhead. Looking up, I see streamers shimmering from around the horizon toward that focus where, wavering, flowing, they whirl together in a pulsing gyre of living forms that spreads and contracts and shifts its shape as I watch. Glowing spiders turn into snakes into eyes into butterflies. The air is clear, sky dark, each star a vivid needle of light. Beneath the stars, the cartwheel aurora rings its changes without repetition as if two eyes aren’t enough to take it in and I need ears as well. I am having a whole-body experience. Candle flames turn into running wolves into great whales into chickens, rays shooting above the trees all the while, feeding the gyre, spinning it round and round and into itself. Roses turn to sparklers turn to ants turn to dinosaurs. The spectacle goes on for hours, each second requiring my whole attention. What if I blinked and missed something? But eventually, cold, stiff, tired, I not only blink but go to bed, my head swimming with the best display of northern lights I’ve ever seen—and as it turns out, ever will see in my life.

I wrote it all down next morning, as much as I could remember, making lists of images in sequence as one led to another. But I lost the list, so rely on fading memory in writing this post, trying to get the feel at least in place of exact details. I didn’t know I was having a spiritual experience at the time, but looking back, that’s what I’d say it was now. Wholly engaged and alive, I met the cosmos half-way as it revealed itself to me as if I was part of the lightshow itself. As if I belonged there so I could participate on my own scale of wonder as the sky showed what it could do in spreading its mystery and glory before me. The cosmos was shining down, and I rose to the occasion by paying it the attention—the homage—it deserved.

Speaking of homage, the English words homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all descend from the same root in an ancient language spoken near the northern end of (what we now call) the Caspian Sea seven thousand years ago.  Languages in Europe and Asia based on such roots include (among many others) Persian, Hindi, Kurdish, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and English. Homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all have meanings relating to Earth because that’s what their common ancient root dhghem- meant in the Proto-Indo-European language long ago.

Like reverence and veneration, homage is a show of honor and respect to another to whom it is due. In my scale of values, paying close attention to something is a way of devoting my consciousness to it as a sign of its importance in my little world. It is one way to give of myself in return for what consciousness gives to me. That is exactly how I felt watching the shape-shifting aurora overhead. I wasn’t passively observing it; I was interacting with it on a mutual basis, serving it by giving it prominence in my mind. I call the giving of personal homage in that way a spiritual act.

Typically, people think of spirituality as implying a relation with capital-g God, but that’s not how I mean it. God comes with too much baggage and too many special needs in being the so-called creator, supreme ruler and judge of the universe, party to a covenant favoring one group of people above all others, yet another male in superhero guise, and advocate for subjecting the natural world to human domination. It is exactly that sort of program carried out by the faithful that has led to Earth’s desecration. So many people in America claiming to believe in such a figure leaves no doubt in my mind why this nation is in the sorry state it is today. The God story doesn’t even make a good read as a myth because the main character is so arrogant, demanding, excitable, and intolerant—so patriarchal. As a concept in the human mind, God is a regrettable habit it is time we outgrew—or impeached. No, for me spirituality has nothing to do with God or any religion centered on God.

If not God or religion, what then is the basis of spirituality? Not scripture, surely. More, some form of nonverbal engagement with someone or something deserving the highest level of attention and respect. Such as the display of northern lights I brought up at the start of this post. Like the exquisite lion’s mane jellyfish three-and-a-half feet across I met while rowing, the most beautiful creature I have ever seen—better than a unicorn (had I encountered one). It wafted to Taunton Bay via the Labrador Current; it might well have splashed down from outer space—off Baffin Island, say—and drifted the rest of the way. Amethyst, shaped and billowing like a submersible parachute, fully transparent, it swam just under the surface three inches below me: I could see every detail, including the barbed tendrils it used to snare its prey. I’d seen countless smaller lion’s manes washed up on shore, looking like day-old helpings of raspberry Jell-O. Usually in winter. But this was a bright spring day. I rowed off to get my camera, and of course the jellyfish was gone when I got back. I followed the current but never saw it again. Like the cartwheel aurora, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But that one encounter was what it took to forge a memory I will take to the crematorium.

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope. What I get for exercising my spiritual consciousness is a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, of having a place in the All. Not only a place but having a sense of participating—as myself—wherever I am. I am not obliged to worship anything, beg forgiveness, tithe, genuflect, or confess my sins. Free to be myself, I find my own way in a universe I happen to find very stimulating and often attractive. I am deeply appreciative, but get far more back from the All than the attentions I give. I don’t ask for beauty, it simply appears, particularly when I do not expect it.

Wholly engaged in such a way, I am moved to be alive in that place at that time. We come together, cosmos and I. The word I use for that wordless state is spirituality.

Spirituality, then, is the sense of affirmation that comes back to me when I care for the world that consciousness reveals to my awareness. Care is the essential factor, the feeling not just of being there, but of putting myself out to care for and about where I am. As an Earthling in good standing, I willingly oblige myself to care for my home planet and to respect its inhabitants, both human and otherwise. Spirituality is a looping engagement with my Earthly surroundings such that my awareness is enriched by paying attention to events which return the investment many times over.

I am on top of Cadillac Mountain at dawn as two artists in residence—two dancers—give their final performance. The stage consists of two granite slabs close together. Lighting is provided by the rising sun shining on the barefoot dancers from behind—revealing them as silhouettes. One is seated facing the sun, the other standing with raised arms poised in welcome. The sun moves; the seated figure rises on one knee; the other beckons with stretched arm to the side. As the dance progresses, it is clear the movements are for the benefit of the sun, not the audience. We are merely a backdrop. Suddenly I realize I am made of granite, a kind of menhir, placed among other standing monuments to mark the commencement of a new day. We’ve been here since the Laurentian Ice Sheet retreated 12 thousand years ago. The dancers move about gracefully on their respective slabs, then after a while come to a halt. The menhirs around me clap, bringing me to my senses, so I clap as well. Appreciations are murmured, then dancers and audience drift off. The slabs remain, showing no trace of the performance. It was dark when I arrived at the summit; now the sun is well on its way to a summit of its own.

Spirituality is transformative. It spurs exploration of other dimensions of consciousness, providing novel perspectives on everyday life. I don’t need drugs to achieve such a state, or endless chanting, or stressful postures. All I need is to give myself wholly to experiencing the moment wherever I am. In that sense, spirituality is a celebratory attitude toward consciousness itself.

The word spirituality refers to the state of being spiritual, which means having the nature of spirit, which derives from Latin spiritus meaning breath, breathing, air, life, soul, and other good things. The concept of spirit is based on breathing seen as the essential medium of life. When the baby cries at birth, she takes her first breath; when the codger issues his last gasp, he dies. Life is the interval between first and last breaths. So very early on, breath was interpreted as the vital, animating principle bringing inert matter to life. At a particular time and place, the name for that principle was spiritus, and that name has stuck to our day.

In the meantime, our understanding of life has advanced so we know oxygen in the air is essential to life, but it is not the whole story. We also know food providing calories to burn in the presence of oxygen is essential to life, as many chemical nutrients are essential. And a genome of some sort is necessary to provide bodily architecture enabling the many processes of life. The so-called life principle turns out to be far more complex than the ancients could grasp. Breath and breathing come nowhere near accounting for life. And nominating God as the agent bestowing life by breathing in a baby’s mouth and withdrawing it from the old codger, in light of what we know today, appears not only old-fashioned but simply wrong.

So we are left with the word spirituality in our vocabulary that cannot possibly mean what it once did. Understanding has moved on, leaving it an orphan, a word without meaning. Yet, too, a word toward which we have an attitude of respect because it was so useful in explaining the mystery of life. What do we do with it? We have a choice: stick to old ways, or graft new understanding onto old roots. Keep the term but give it a new meaning—exactly what I am up to in this post. That way, we acknowledge our nature as creatures of habit, but give ourselves a push forward in updating the conventional wisdom of our day. (The term God, too, needs updating because its former meaning as spiritual ruler of the universe is now so eroded as to be full of holes, leaving many of us trying to catch rain in a sieve. But that’s another post for another day.)

Take One: I am in a parking lot, beneath a poplar just leafing out. Carole and I are ignoring the cars, looking up at a yellow-and-black bird singing on a branch of the tree like the muezzin in his minaret. We have cause to listen: that male goldfinch is announcing himself to (the female portion of) his world, “I will support you with my vigor and the territory I am claiming even now; won’t you join me?” Truth and beauty from the beak of a bird. Take Two: We are entering Acadia from Route 3 by a path leading across the top of a beaver dam. The air is filled with music. Carole points across the pond to a red dot high in a dead tree. That dot is the source of the melody we hear—a male scarlet tanager singing his heart out—commanding us and every other eared being within range to listen with awe to that one voice of all voices in the universe. Take Three: I am alone on an island in April, walking from the stone cabin my father built in 1940-41 to the shingled cabin I built in 1976. It rained in the night; everything is damp and dripping, including me as I brush spruce boughs aside. Even so, I am having the time of my life listening to a male robin I cannot see in the tree overhead, caroling what I take to be the finest song ever sung. I didn’t know robins had it in them. But they are thrushes after all, related to hermit and wood thrushes, so I stand still for twenty minutes and give myself to wet woods that can produce such a sound.

Spiritual takes, all three. Transporting, transformative, never to be forgotten. When the universe calls, I stop to listen. Spirituality is that simple. Finally, another encounter with northern lights that rocked me not back on my heels but in my boat.

The night is clear and still. I am rowing to the island after a meeting that ran late. I keep looking over my shoulder to see the pale green aurora arching over the island, and its reflection under the island in the still bay filled with stars. The total effect is of a green eye with a black pupil: the island and its reflection being inside the shimmering green lozenge of the aurora and its reflection. Of all creatures on Earth, I am the only one to witness the apparition of this celestial eye looking back at me. In a sense, an illusion, but all awareness is illusion. I give up trying to row and turn my boat around so I, at my rowing station, can face north. What can I say? This is a time for looking, not speaking. For savoring, not acting. Everything comes together in this moment, island, aurora, universe, and me.

Sunrise-72

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Money is a pure idea, an abstraction having only symbolic value but no concrete, existential qualities of its own. The sensory or qualitative attributes associated with bills and coins belong more properly to currency issued in tangible form by duly authorized mints in symbolic denominations having value separate from any historic, artistic, or material value they may have. With money, the value is in the mind, which may be projected onto coins in the hand, goods in the market, stashes under the mattress, IOUs, and so on.

The point of money is to facilitate past, present, or future exchanges of items deemed to have value, so enabling apples and oranges to be fairly bartered against the same standard in the marketplace over time. If the price is not right today, perhaps later.

But where does the value of money actually come from? Labor is one source, representing more-or-less skillful work enabled by calories from sunlight via Earth’s plant and animal life. Capital is another, derived from productive land itself or minerals and other commodities taken from land or sea. In this sense, money is hardly symbolic but represents value derived in every case from the nature and productivity of the Earth. In fact the entire human economy depends absolutely on value received from our planet directly or indirectly from the sun. These are tangible, extracted values indeed, not merely abstract or symbolic ones. Backing every dollar, yen, euro, peso is Earth itself, the bank on which our livelihoods depend absolutely.

The French farmer hoisting a clod of soil into the air in his fist, crying: “This is France!” has it exactly right. The state survives by the good graces of its waters and soils, not subsequent human endeavor as is commonly supposed. In the most concrete sense possible, the value of money represents labor, metabolism, food, territory, and Earth resources. In a very real sense, money is equivalent to territory giving us a foothold on Earth. That is its derivation. Territory for producing food to support a worker’s metabolism, territory providing resources—the ultimate capital. Printing money puts us into debt—to Earth itself. For which Earth gets a big fat IOU. In a very real sense, the more we consume, the more we are indebted. We withdraw, Earth pays—that is the system we have devised for ourselves without giving credit where it is due, as if Earth’s gifts were externals and not the ultimate reality.

Having gotten this far into today’s post, I visited the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor on my way to the post office. Browsing through the New York Times of April 12, I came across an OpEd piece by Eric Zencey under the title, “Mr. Soddy’s Ecological Economy.” Mr. Soddy being Frederick Soddy, a British chemist who became an economist active in the 1920s and 1930s. This sentence leapt straight into my brain:

The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment—and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb.

There, in one sentence is what I’ve been trying to say in four paragraphs! And I never even got to the waste part. Of course, to understand that sentence you have to know about entropy—the flip side of work in being spent energy reduced to such a low state as to be useless.

Then I read the whole piece and this 1970s revisioning of the economy as a living system by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen made even more sense:

Like all life, [the economy] draws from its environment valuable (or “low entropy”) matter and energy—for animate life, food; for an economy, energy, ores, the raw materials provided by plants and animals. And like all life, an economy emits a high-entropy wake—it spews degraded matter and energy: waste heat, waste gases, toxic byproducts, apple cores, the molecules of iron lost to rust and abrasion. Low entropy emissions include trash and pollution in all their forms, including yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s sneakers, last decade’s rusted automobile.

Zencey goes on to say [very mildly, I thought] there’s “a systemic flaw in how our economy finances itself.” In my words, we keep overdrawing our account with the Earth because we do not acknowledge our indebtedness, claiming it is external to our method of accounting. That is, it is hidden from consciousness as if it did not exist. Except it does, and we habitually avert our gaze. Our left-brain interpreters never told us; how were we to know?

It is time we learned to live with Earth as good stewards, not on it as if it were merely our pad in the universe. Which means accounting for our fouling of the environment with two truckloads of waste for every one truckload of resources we extract from it. This has been going on long enough that this imbalance is being noticed by those on the forefront of economic awareness who hope to settle our long-overdue debt to the Earth. It’s like credit-card debt, only fatal, not just extravagant.

The best book I’ve read lately is an offshoot from the Quaker Institute for the Future (in some people’s eyes, an oxymoron if ever there was one), a book by Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver titled Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009). To capture the flavor of the book, I offer three excerpts which point to the revolution in consciousness we need to establish a sustainable economy:

1. As we make the personal choices we must make each day, we face the dilemma of being dependent on a society that causes ecological destruction we abhor. We cannot turn away from the modern world, yet we must curb our demands so that the earth’s resources are sustained. We are called to show, by our daily choices and actions, the way toward a more harmonious, more fulfilling, nondestructive way for humans to live on our planet—the way to harvest the fruit without destroying the tree (page 156).

2. Do we have to wait for the earth’s decline to reach such a crisis point that it can no longer support significant numbers of people and species, before we unite with our fellow human beings to bring about the necessary economic and governance changes? If we do wait, widespread environmental degradation and escalating violent conflict over energy, water, wood, and food are inevitable, with even larger and more tragic population movements than the planet is already enduring. Many people will die, and many will endure lives of great misery (page 168).

3. Instead of the anxious, illusory pursuit of more money and possessions, people need to think about pursuing joyful, grateful, and fulfilling lives in right relationship with life’s commonwealth. Values progression of this kind is needed not only at a personal level but also in institutions and enterprises at the community, national, and international level. Many indigenous peoples already have cultural values and belief systems that support right relationships, which rest primarily on respect and gratitude for all that is (page 168).

Imagine an economy based on shared gratitude for the gifts Earth grants us, not on some mock competition for goods and wealth produced we care not where, by what or whom. That will be the day consciousness triumphs over ignorance and arrogance, the day humanity truly comes of age.

¦

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

 

Shakespeare got that right. But he goes on to develop the theme of seven acts or ages as if that were the essence of life’s drama. From my point of view in writing this blog on consciousness, the acting out of personal scripts in each scene (situation) by the players themselves is the heart of the metaphor. That’s where the moment-to-moment drama takes place. The overall intent may be to impress the audience, but interactive relationships between characters are the means for revealing the inner tensions that drive the plot. It is the rise and fall of those tensions which support the drama. Underneath it all is the interplay of personal consciousness acted out in full public view.

 

In an earlier post (Reflection 87: A Mind of My Own) I wrote:

 

Consciousness is an integrated synthesis of many parts . . . . Our left-brain interpreter takes all those parts and weaves them into a story that binds them together into a coherent narrative. Whether factual or fanciful, it is that internal story of which we are conscious. All of which may or may not shed light on any so-called real world.

 

That is, internal stories concocted by our respective left-brain interpreters provide the script each of us plays out on the world stage in the company of our fellow players—all following scripts of their own.

 

Which sounds like it may produce a very confusing drama with each player scripting her own actions. And looking around, that is exactly what we find. Bernie Madoff reading from his own script, Rush Limbaugh his, Rod Blagojevich his, Jimmy Carter his, Palestinians and Israelis respectively their own, Democrats and Republicans theirs, and so on. There is no master scripter; each of us is privileged (or condemned) to follow the cadence of her own inner voice.

 

Whether looking into various crises such as that of credit, energy, health care, climate change, world trade, wealth distribution, overpopulation, or any of the rest, we find individual players acting out their personal narratives as if in each case they were delivering a monologue with the stage to themselves .

 

Storytelling is the name of the game we are playing. In the belief that what’s good theater for me is good theater for all, a gross distortion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand has become the doctrine of free enterprise in our nation and now around the world. This applies not only to the wealth of individuals and nations, but to any sort of human enterprise. What following the dictates of self-interest produces is chaos, period. The heralded state of harmony never arrives.

 

The problem being that in denying any sensible checks on the stories we tell ourselves, they wander on endlessly without feedback from other points of view. Research on split-brain subjects reveals just how strained and bizarre such stories become without input from even the other side of our own brains, much less other people. As Pieter Brueghel has shown, when the blind lead the blind, all are deceived and end in the ditch.

 

Tales spun by consciousness need impartial editing before being played out in life. As you like it—or laissez-faire—is not a sufficient check on personal action. Behavior based on monologues leads consciousness to gallop unbridled through public affairs, causing the tumult of these days. Signing statements, for example, which excuse the executive from having to observe legislation passed by Congress, distort the law of the land into a parody of itself. Having two laws, one for the executive, another for everyone else, is wily chaos attempting to pass as good order.

 

All due to letting our left-brain interpreters of events have their way with us and the world. Can it be that simple? I believe it can. Michael Gazzaniga locates our personal interpreters in the left frontal cortex of our brains. As The Brain from Top to Bottom (http://www.thebrain.mcgill.ca) puts it:

 

When a person with a split brain is placed in a situation where the two hemispheres come into conflict, she may use her left hemisphere’s language capabilities to talk to herself, sometimes even going so far as to force the right hemisphere to obey the left hemisphere’s verbal commands. If that proves impossible, the left hemisphere will often rationalize or reinterpret the sequence of events so as to re-establish the impression that the person’s behaviour makes sense. It was this phenomenon that led Gazzaniga to propose that there is an “interpreter,” or “narrative self,” in the left frontal cortex not only of split-brain patients but also of all human beings (Can States of Consciousness Be Mapped in the Brain? Advanced level.)

 

I believe Gazzaniga is on the right track because I can observe my own interpreter at work when it goes beyond the evidence to produce an explanation for things it doesn’t truly understand: to wit, this blog. I can produce a theory to explain any phenomenon that catches my attention. Usually, I realize I am transcending my own limitations, so don’t force my opinions on others. But when I sacrifice good sense to vanity or self-deception, then I can watch myself spinning a yarn for the impression it makes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Making up bedtime stories can be both fun and entertaining. Where does fiction come from if not our left-brain interpreters? But in the service of fraudulent or self-deceptive motives, the interpreter can quickly take us out beyond our depth.

 

When I am unsure of myself, I fall back on trial and error. “See if this might work or suggests a different approach,” I tell myself. Most of what I have learned in life has come from making mistakes and correcting them. If my interpreter isn’t up to a situation because it lacks the necessary data, then it makes a stab at understanding what’s going on and—right or wrong—always learns something that can be useful next time around.

 

What gets us into trouble is pretending we know more than we can know—about the market, terrorists, Iran, creation, the will of God, or even ourselves. Actions based on insufficient understanding for the sake of self-importance, illusions, power, wealth, or personal advantage are sure to get us in trouble. Which is why the human world is in the sorry state that it is from too much pretense and self-righteousness.

 

My approach in writing this blog is to come at consciousness every way I can think of based on my personal experience. Yes, I am spinning a yarn. But at the same time I am gathering evidence from my own life that bolsters my understanding. Writing every post has taught me something about myself. If I never made the effort, I’d still be as dumb as I was at the start. All knowledge is self-knowledge, and if we are not perpetual learners, then we risk passing ourselves off as smarter than we actually are. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

 

Which is why I pay special attention to the care and handling of my personal interpreter. Even the FBI and CIA don’t know what thoughts are passing through my head. I am the only one who can pay attention to my inner processes. If I don’t, I miss the opportunity of a lifetime, because I am not privy to the workings of anyone’s consciousness but my own. If I don’t live up to my own self-set standards, no one else will do it for me. So here I am, having the adventure of my life in full public view. That way lies transparency, light and understanding. We know what lies the other way: been there, done that. Just look around at the mess we have made for ourselves and our home planet.

 

It is time to take a new direction. Namely, to heed the oracle and finally get to know ourselves inside-out. That way lies hope, eventual mastery, and true understanding. To get there, we have to develop prototypes for the new man and new woman. In my own small way, that’s what I’m working on. I’m trying as hard as I can to put Gandhi’s wisdom into practice by becoming the change that I seek.

 

¦

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

What have I learned from posting 86 reflections to this blog on topics related to consciousness viewed inside-out? A lot, I would say. I devote Reflection 87 to a few such items.

 

For one thing, science is unlikely to provide a grand overview of consciousness by working on it from the outside as an object of study. Consciousness is not an object but an experience. No matter how much we learn about “the” brain—as if there were only one—by studying individual brains (in animal or clinical studies, say, or studies of bloodflow to particular areas of the brain while human subjects engage in assigned tasks), it is not possible to generalize findings to the population at large with much confidence. Consciousness and brains are two different things, as are soups and the kettles they are made in.

 

For another, consciousness is situated in brains situated in bodies situated in species situated in immediate environments situated in ecoregions situated in a biosphere situated in a solar system situated in a universe. Up and down the hierarchy, a study at one level is influenced by—and affects—each of the others. Our initial assumptions may comfort us by constraining our field of study to a reasonable size, but the question remains, do we know what we’re doing? Which applies to me as well as to everyone else.

 

In any given instance, consciousness involves a nested series of feedback loops that bias findings in ways that cannot be told. Anticipation and expectancy play key roles in both actions and perceptions contributing to consciousness. Human experience as a whole entails acting in a world that cannot immediately be known without participation by the knower, and feedback from that world must be interpreted in light of what that knower knows and intends, including her unconscious assumptions, mindset at the time, and situated expectations.

 

Consciousness is an integrated synthesis of many parts, including attention, motivation, concrete sensory images; cognitive structures such as concepts and ideas; feelings; autobiographical, situational, and semantic memories; understanding, anticipation and expectancy; judgment; and behavior; among others. Our left-brain interpreter takes all those parts and weaves them into a story that binds them together into a coherent narrative. Whether factual or fanciful, it is that internal story of which we are conscious. All of which may or may not shed light on any so-called real world.

 

The lives we live influence the structure of our minds, allowing billions of neurons and synapses to waste away while other billions are made stronger and more interconnected. From conception, we are each unique in many ways. For starters, our genome is unique, as is our rearing, education, job training, medical history, mental chemistry, life experience, luck, and so on. We may all be members of one species, but as individuals no two of us are the same nor can we be expected to perform like anyone else. Our personal consciousness is as unique as each one of us. Which means we each inhabit a separate world of experience.

 

Since our personal consciousness is unique, engaging other equally unique minds is harder than we might suppose. It is not to be taken for granted that speakers of a common language have access to common minds. Each mind is most uncommon, no matter how many languages it commands. Rather than rushing to walk in another’s moccasins, which sounds good but is impossible to do, a better approach is to walk together side-by-side toward a mutually agreed upon goal. Reaching out to one another must be done carefully and deliberately, paying careful attention to feedback received during the engagement. Free speech does not imply free understanding. This must be earned the old fashioned way, through mutual respect, careful attention to detail, taking small steps, and persistence.

 

Yes, we can change—or at least shape—our outlook, our world, our experience, our consciousness. To do that requires we change the makeup of our brains by loosening old connections and strengthening new ones. Which will require a minimum of, say, ten thousand hours of concentrated effort. We can all outdo ourselves, but we have to propel ourselves from the inside, not be forced from without. Others will try to prevent us from deviating from the plans they have made for us, but finding ways to do our own work is part of the effort required to transform ourselves into the persons we passionately desire to become.

 

And lastly, I have learned that the greatest rewards in life flow from getting our acts together in our own consciousness, earning us the sense that all parts of our minds are working together toward the same end, which is the end we set for ourselves and work wholeheartedly to achieve. Nothing is more exciting than to experience ourselves as a symphony of separate parts working in concert. The good news is we can make that happen. The tougher news is we are the only ones who can. It may not happen tomorrow or even next year, but—with a little help from our friends—we can do it.

 

¦

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is human achievement due to innate ability (talent) or training and practice (hard work)? Daniel J. Levitin reports findings from research on that question in his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006; see Reflection 54: Books About Consciousness):

 

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. . . . [N]o one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery (page 197).

 

So practice does make perfect—deliberate, attentive, conscious repetition of routines until they belong not only to the likes of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Einstein, but to the rest of us as well. It’s not just a matter of putting in the time. The quality of that time is crucial to success. We must turn our passions into disciplined behaviors through strict concentration. That’s what it takes to build strong neural connections in our brains sufficient to turn the off-the-shelf model we start with into a customized brain suited to the challenges of today’s world. To realize our personal dreams, there is no substitute for concentration and hard work.

 

The secret to becoming an expert is motivation. To do better than we have done in the past, we’ve got to devote a good part of our conscious life to achieving our goals—whatever they might be. We can’t buy or rent success, or leave it to others to acquire for us. Life is a meaningless abstraction until we decide what we want our life to be. That is the first issue, which sets us off in a particular direction. Then the question arises, are we willing to do the work? We can’t know until we try. We’ve got to push ahead from where we are to see where we end up. It may not be the achievement we planned, but if we put in our ten thousand hours, we will be somewhere at least, far beyond where we started out.

 

Which sounds like the standard pep talk you’ve heard a thousand times. Hang tough, you can do it! But now we are beginning to understand how dedicated passion and conscious attention can, in changing our brains, change our lives—and change the world. To develop skills, timing, judgment, and knowledge, we have to do whatever is required to build specific patterns of nerve connections in our brains. Whatever we do to our brains, they will do for us on demand. That is the amazing secret of human experience. Treat our brains in humdrum fashion, our brains will see to it we lead humdrum lives. Challenge our brains to do all they can, they have no choice but to return the favor in kind.

 

It’s not how we treat others, it’s how we treat ourselves that is the key to success. Expect little—that’s exactly what we will get. If we ask for the moon, we must build that moon crater-by-crater over time into our brains; then when we ask, there it will be.

 

When we meet someone and ask what they “do” we generally imply “for a living.” But in getting acquainted, what we really want to know is, have they put in the necessary ten thousand hours of exercising their body and brain? If they’re young, what are they working on? What is their bliss, their passion? Apprenticeships and grad school take ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours flipping burgers leads to a burger-flipping life, perhaps eventually as a store manager or franchise owner if they dedicate their hearts and brains to getting ahead.

 

In my life, I have put in my ten thousand hours three times over: as a photographer, a teacher, and now a writer. I have reinvented myself each time to move into a more direct relationship with the world I wanted to live in. Each time I went back to Go and started over. I never got $200 for the effort, but went to the bottom and worked my way up. My first job in each field paid $5,000 a year in the currency of the day. Which sounds self-defeating, but I was changing with the times, so explored unknown dimensions of myself as they emerged in my awareness.

 

I have often claimed that consciousness has been selected for to give us a tool for working our way out of those tough, unanticipated situations we get ourselves into. In the old days, growing up to reproductive age used to be the problem, and then surviving long enough to help our children reach that age.

 

Now that we in the developed world are born with a cultural quilt around our shoulders, we are likely to take raising families and having grandchildren for granted as if they would be ours as a matter of course. Our life challenge then becomes, what are we going to be when we grow up so we can have the wherewithal to support the comfortable lifestyles we aspire to?

 

Fireman? Astronaut? Rock star? NASCAR driver? Consciousness has evolved to enable us to set goals such as these. And beyond that, to work our way through the arduous training sessions and hours of practice that will modify our bodies and brains accordingly, putting our goals within reach. Once appropriately stimulated, our brains will give us the skills to match our performance to our desires, enabling us to get close to what we hoped we might become.

 

Day by day, consciousness enables us to grow up. To survive in this world. Which is no mean accomplishment, given the hazards surrounding us on all sides. Consciousness would be our most prized possession, if only we didn’t take it for granted—as if growing up is ours by right and not something we have to make happen.

 

The world is full of people who have every sort of advantage—and waste them all by not doing the work of learning how to turn them to good use. They don’t put in their ten thousand hours. Or if they do, it is on high living, recreation, and entertainment. Or on sticking to outmoded ways. They shape their brains to their inheritance, not the promise of the future, so rely on the generic brain model they were given, which is more adapted to the world of 50,000 years ago than the challenges of today. Ice-age brains are good for dealing with ice ages. The W model might be good for highly privileged cave dwellers, but as we have seen over the past eight years, our basic equipment is no longer adequate to the life situations we encounter in today’s modern world.

 

Our skills and brains require updating. Which is where consciousness must be put to good use. Global warming, sea level rise, economic collapse, eternal warfare, overpopulation, overconsumption, wastefulness, militarization, power reserved to the wealthy for their own benefit—there’s got to be a better way. A spectrum of better ways.

 

The global situation requires each of us to put in a minimum of ten thousand hours in bringing our personal consciousness and skills up to the standards required if we are to contribute to the world we actually live in, not the fictionalized world featured in mythology, many schoolbooks, and the entertainment media.

 

¦

 

Reflection 70: Joanna Macy

February 27, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I have never met Joanna Macy yet she is a landmark in my conscious life. Her book, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (State University of New York Press, 1991), expands the linear notion of cause and effect to the three-dimensional realm of mutual interaction and causality. Macy sets out to track the influence of feedback in goings-on in the world. Yes, everything is connected, not rigidly, but through interactive processes that create the dynamic universe we live in. That universe—and our consciousness of it—does not simply unroll in a straight line, but keeps recreating itself through an infinite series of stages never twice the same.

 

It’s true, you can’t go home again because home will have changed since you left it. Home is a state of consciousness locked in memory but no longer in existence. With the upshot that, if home isn’t the same, you aren’t the same. Everything changes, that is the law of consciousness. The mutual interplay of simultaneously changing elements within a system is what Joanna Macy deals with in her book.

 

This work has tremendous implications for consciousness because when the observer looks at her world, the world looks back at her, both aware all the time of their mutual engagement. What you perceive is partly the result of your own process of seeing and partly due to the simultaneous influence of the world seeing you. You know what it is to catch someone’s eye eying your eye. There’s always more going on than meets one eye in isolation. We are never isolated; we are always engaged with that portion of a world making up our current situation. We and that situation are mutually engaged, even if we may not be aware of our personal contribution.

 

I devote this post to Joanna Macy’s ideas expressed in her own words. All quotes are from Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.

 

Reality

z The illusion that knower is separate from . . . the world she would know . . . drives her into error and derails her pursuit of truth. (Page 130.)

 

Self/I/Ego

z Everything subsists in relationship and knows no independent self-existence. (Page 110.)

 

z In the web of relationships which form what we call the self there are no clear lines of demarcation whereby it can be asserted “This is I.” (Page 110.)

 

z To be a person . . . is to participate, at every level of our being, in a reality wider than that enclosed by our skin or identified with our name. (Page 184.)

 

z As a social and linguistic convention, the notion of an “I” is useful, but, if taken to represent a fixed or separate entity, it is a fiction. (Page 184.)

 

z What is to be overcome, or rather “seen through,” is not this stream of events, this fountain of thoughts and feelings, but the construct of “I” we impose upon it and the assumption that it is separate from other beings. (Page 216.)

 

Reflection/Meditation

z The Buddha [did not] “pour” precepts into his followers’ heads so much as invite them to free themselves of habitual ways of seeing. (Page 127.)

 

z The mental distortions which obscure to us the nature of our being in the world [can be] viewed in a merciless light. . . .

     This is done by directing attention not to the things we see but to how we see them, the dependently co-arising nature of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. (Page 136.)

 

z Skillful meditation, that journey into the wilderness where we confront our own tricks and delusions, can empower social action, freeing us to respond in simplicity and immediacy to our fellow beings. (Page 217.)

 

z The grip of ego is weakened not only in meditation, but also in acting on behalf of others. The risk-taking and courage which moral action often requires can catapult us beyond . . . individual self-interest. We are shot into a larger space where the old boundaries of self dissolve. (Page 217.)

 

Relationships

z The persistent labors of many on behalf of the public weal, as well as the simpler, more mundane acts whereby pleasure is found in giving pleasure, testify to a widespread intuition that we are, by nature, part of each other. (Page 188.)

 

Transformation

z What do we do with this clamoring ego, this posturing “I” that distorts our perceptions . . . ? Religious faiths offer means of transcending it by setting it into larger perspectives, The common element is the transformation that occurs as consciousness encounters and opens to wider dimensions of reality. (Page 215.)

 

z Like roots, trunk, and branches, we beings are interconnected and part of each other. Our griefs and hopes are not separate, nor can our fulfillments be private, for we are as organically linked as a tree. To act with this knowledge, and shape our lives and institutions to reflect it, requires transformations that threaten our comfort and security. It requires a dying to old ways. This is easier to accept and face when we realize that, like a flame, we are ever dying and renewing, for that is the nature of things. (Page 219.)

 

Values

z Value is intrinsic to each act because action . . . represents, in the last analysis, what we are and what we become. (Page 110.)

 

z Ethical norms . . . are grounded in the very relativity that, in the mutual causal view, conditions all existence. These norms and values reveal that the liberation of the individual and the health of her society are inseparable. Indeed, they point to a profound mutuality between personal and social transformations. (Page 212.)

 

z Moral values are not acquired by intellectual assent alone, as many religious teachers have affirmed, but involve a reorganization of personality. By the same token, they do not transform society unless they transform the doer himself. (Page 215.)

 

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Reflection 69: Values

February 25, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Acquisition of wealth is one of our values because it heightens the probability of personal survival. Not so much the survival of our physical person as survival of consciousness as we practice that art. That is, survival of those inner worlds we have been busy building for ourselves all these years.

 

Values are key concepts we derive from living our lives. They are envelopes for keeping life-enhancing experiences all in one place in our minds so they are readily available to us when we need them. Winning, justice, truth, beauty, freedom, love—these are names of a few common values. Just to say them stirs us mysteriously from within. They excite us, get our blood flowing faster to make us ready for intentional action.

 

Values are abstractions drawn from experience. As such, they are hollow, requiring new situations to give them substance in the here and now. Values are primal meanings waiting to happen, to be called to the fore of conscious judgment so we know which way to go and what to do in unfamiliar situations. Values are guides to the route by which the idea of the future can be realized in the actual present. Without them, what would we aim at? What would we work for? Who would we be?

 

Values give definite shape to the possibility of consciousness in specific situations. We are always on the lookout for instances of their embodiment, and perk up when we discover them. Much has been written directly and indirectly about values because blood has been stirred and even shed in their name. I here offer a few excerpts from my reading in recent years.

 

Parker Palmer, 2005. z  The Dalai Lama, Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandella, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, and Thich Nhat Hanh, . . . . such people came to trust, not resist, the journey of heartbreak described by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Kahn: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” Hearts like these have been broken open to a largeness that holds the promise of a better future for all, a “habit of the heart” without which democracy cannot survive, let alone flourish.

 

Terry Tempest Williams, 2004. z  The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of Power.

 

H. Maturana & F. Varela, 1987. z  The world will be different only if we live differently.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948. z  Become the change you seek in the world.

 

Leonard Joy, 2002. z  If we are to be purposive together, we must create spaces where we have conversations about what it means to be human on our planet.

 

Joy. z  Values development reflects a change in the nature of the relationship that a person has with self and other. When this comes from reflective self-awareness, I see the individual as being on a spiritual path and attainment as spiritual development.

 

Joy. z  Societal progress depends on self-reflecting individuals aspiring to higher values and finding resonance with others in this aspiration who together become an effective force for change.

 

Duane Elgin, 1993. z  Each person is a vitally important and unique agent in the process of planetary evolution.

 

Elgin. z  It is only through our individual awakening and creative action that the Earth will awaken as well.

 

G. Lakoff & M. Johnson, 1999. z  The environment is not an “other” to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being. . . . We cannot and do not exist apart from it.

 

Lakoff & Johnson. z  We appear to be the only animals who can reflect critically on their lives in order to make changes in how they behave.

 

Fritjof Capra, 1982. z  Detailed study of ecosystems . . . has shown quite clearly that most relationships between living organisms are essentially cooperative ones, characterized by coexistence and interdependence, and symbiotic in various degrees. Although there is competition, it usually takes place within a wider context of cooperation, so that the larger system is kept in balance.

 

Capra. z  What survives is the organism-in-its-environment. An organism that thinks only in terms of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment and, as we are learning from bitter experience, will thus destroy itself.

 

Capra. z  Value systems and ethics are not peripheral to science and technology but constitute their very basis and driving force. Hence the shift to a balanced social and economic system will require a corresponding shift of values—from self-assertion and competition to cooperation and social justice, from expansion to conservation, from material acquisition to inner growth.

 

Michael Polanyi, 1962. z  Where great originality is at work in science or, even more clearly, in artistic creation, the innovating mind sets itself new standards more satisfying to itself, and modifies itself by the process of innovation so as to become more satisfying to itself in the light of these self-set standards. Yet all the time the creative mind is searching for something believed to be real; which, being real, will—when discovered—be entitled to claim universal validity. . . . Such are the acts by which [the human mind improves itself].

 

Henry David Thoreau, 1854. z  If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

 

Charles Gibbs, 2005. z  So what do we do? We might begin by seeing ourselves as citizens of the Earth and children of the abiding Mystery at the heart of all that is. Then . . . set out on a journey to encounter the other and find ourselves.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is there such a thing as a meeting of minds? Can community consciousness exist? I do know that groups can take concerted action, some by the will of the majority, some by consensus, some by executive decision. But what does that say about community consciousness?

 

What strikes me about the seven of us is that we’re all coming from different directions. We’re here to suggest topics for a statewide committee* in Maine to focus on in coming months, but so far each of us has proposed a different topic. It’s early in the meeting. I’ll just sit back and watch the process develop. Except I’m always the first one to open my mouth. What have we got so far? Pri says we have to move the state toward a moral economy (implying that the economy we have now is immoral). Robert says global warming is at crisis stage and is priority number one. Don’t forget health care, says Carole. The system we have isn’t working. I say, we need to educate our children for tomorrow, not yesterday as we are currently doing. Don’t forget the energy crisis, says Robert, it’s hitting everybody, now, this winter. In his calm voice, Gray says taxation is a statewide issue; we need a paradigm shift so we can buy collectively and pay less than we do on our own. That brings up whether or not capitalism has a chance of working, says Ed, which so far is not supported by the evidence. I say, don’t forget the environment which is footing the bill for all our past and present excesses. Whatever happened to compassion, says Jan, the we in we the people? We can’t pretend we can go it alone on rugged individualism. Look where that’s got us. And so it goes for a couple of hours, round and round the room, Ed taking notes all the while. The case management approach is expensive. Buy collectively, buy better. Social responsibility is a responsibility to share. Have taxes pay for programs that work. Whatever happened to enlightened self-interest—as an alternative to greed? The issue is not I have but we have together. What taxes? Sales, capital gains, income? Beware those who secretly believe in eugenics, survival of the fittest, and superior races ruling over their inferiors. But then in the last half hour the group comes together. Community. Cooperation. Compassion. Empathy. United we stand, divided we fall. One for all, all for one. Fairness and equity. Yes, we can! The moral economy is a we economy. Global warming and the energy crisis are we problems. Health care is a we issue. Educate for we awareness and mutual accountability. Taxation provides the wherewithal to turn this population of assorted individuals into a we nation. Nobody owns the environment; it has to be managed for the benefit of all species—the Big We, including humans. That’s the way Maine has to go. The state seal features the North Star at the top, with the motto Dirigo—“I lead.” Make that we lead. How to do that, that’s the conversation we want to get moving in this state.

 

There’s no way I can truly represent a conversation that evolved over two-and-a-half hours, so this attempt is largely fiction informed by truth. What it leaves out is the sense of struggle in listening to one another and to one’s inner self at the same time. Community consciousness, if it exists, is hard-earned, temporary, and specific to a given occasion. It has to be painstakingly built up over the duration of each and every occasion. But I do believe that seven minds can eventually attain a kind of resonance so that each voice speaks to and for the collective mind of all seven. At least that’s what we seem to have achieved.

 

One thing I haven’t said: we aren’t strangers coming together for the first time. We’ve known one another for fifteen years, coming together some fifty times a year since 1994. We know who we are and trust who we are. That makes a big difference. We’ve settled on a common language that works for us all. Which makes it easier to hear and feel what is being said. We’re all unique individuals, but we can eventually settle into a group that works together.

 

Different as we are, do we share a kind of consciousness in common? I think, yes, a consciousness earned through numerous encounters and discussions over the years. Our approach now is cooperative more than competitive. Which suits us to our times as an alternative to the temper of independence that has put the nation in the state we find today—near total collapse.

 

The scary part is how long it takes to develop community consciousness that emphasizes common interests over winning and personal selfishness. It takes decades to turn making a killing by oneself into making a living together. In fluid communities, people move in and out faster than the group requires to reach a workable level of cohesion. Even members of Congress aren’t around long enough to learn how to be effective in working together. And that favors a two-party system which outlasts them all—and distinctive party lines impervious to any impulse to compromise, much less cooperate. Our system of governance balks the gradual evolution of community consciousness on a national level.

 

Which leaves us where? Raising the hood, looking down at the motor which runs our political and economic systems, wondering where we went wrong, and what we can do now to get moving again.

 

¦

__________

 

* Friends Committee on Maine Public Policy.