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.

Wildness is a quality of situations I get myself into. As I use the term, it points to relationships in nature I notice but don’t understand. My kind of wildness prompts feelings of awe and wonder, leading to questions about why things turn out as I discover them. Here are a few sample questions based on my pursuit of wildness during this past summer.

  • Why do trees grow layers of smooth bark—only to rend them in growing bigger, producing characteristic patterns and textures of rough bark?
  • Why do lichens express themselves in so many different forms?
  • Who drops crab parts on the forest floor far from water?
  • Why do Indian pipes sprout up in thick clumps, and who pollinates them so they can do it again next year?
  • Why do mushrooms come in so many colors?
  • Is it mushroom spores or flesh (or both) that attracts slugs?
  • Which comes first, flowers or their pollinators? Do they evolve together?
  • Life exposed at low tide seems so vulnerable to shoreline scavengers (raccoons, foxes, gulls, crows, eagles); it’s as if sharing the wealth were part of nature’s wild structure. Or is that my wild imagination?
  • Foresters talk about “overage” trees which should have been cut, but snags and decaying stems and branches are essential to healthy forest ecosystems in the future. What am I missing?
  • I have never found two trees alike; each grows into its unique location on Earth as an expression of the unique conditions on that site. Yet we talk in general terms of “wood” and “trees” and “forests” as if particular trees did not exist as living beings. Once we reduce life to platitudes and generalities (“dinosaurs,” “Indians,” “natural resources”), we are not telling the full story. Why do we base education on books as a substitute for personal discoveries and insights in the field?
  • How long does it take a spider to spin a ground web? How does it do that, fitting each strand to the local terrain?
  • Why is old man’s beard found on one branch of a tree and not another nearby? Does it get water from airborne vapor, or does that vapor need to condense on individual filaments?

Wildness to me is one big question. It is something that draws my attention but I can’t explain. I live with wildness every day as a mystery I seem to be immersed in, even though I know that sense is in me and not the world. If wildness existed in the world, everybody would be exploring it and asking questions, not making a killing on Wall Street or a battlefield in some distant land. Wildness is right here where I live because it is something I take with me everywhere I go. Wildness is part and parcel of my consciousness, a feature of my inquisitive mind.

It is no accident I have a small digital camera in a case on my belt. I love to photograph the wild mysteries I come across in my wanderings, and have since I was four years old. This summer I’ve been engaged with wildness every day, producing hundreds of JPG files each week. That’s what I do when I confront wildness—take its picture, if I can. Other people listen to music, watch TED talks, go to movies. I press the shutter. Then Photoshop each picture, adjusting size, contrast, brightness, sharpness. I compare photos I’ve made of wildness, select the few that present it best to my eye, resize them to post to my blog, upload them to show the world the kinds of situations I get into while making myself happen as I do.

It’s all here in this blog—the sensory impressions I face on a daily basis, the situations I build around those impressions because they’re so wild, and actions I take in response to that situated wildness by going through the necessary steps of engagement it takes to post my words and photos to the Web.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of being conscious in the way I have learned to think about consciousness over the past thirty years in terms of loops of engagement connecting my mind to the world—and hopefully to other minds in other corners of the world.

I’ll add a few more photos of wildness as I see it in my next post.

As ever (while I last), y’r friend, —Steve from Planet Earth

P.S. While stretching my legs after writing this post, I heard a whooshing sound nearby along the trail, and looked down on the rotting carcass of a snowshoe hare, covered with flies, alighting after my approach sent them whooshing up. Wildness in the flesh (i.e., in my mind). I came across the same scene on a different trail last year; it was gone in two days, old life turned to new.

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Actions (including speech) are how we get out of our heads and make ourselves known to the world. To reach the point where considered action becomes possible, we must shift our attention from the felt situation that motivates us to judging what kind of act would suit that situation. Once in that place, we can set goals for ourselves, engage in projects and relationships meant to lead us toward achieving those goals, and then implement them by acting within our projects and relationships to make our situated selves happen in the world, which is as far as we can go on one particular run of conscious activity. We then start on a new run by paying attention to incoming sensory impressions as shaped by expectancy and arousal, which redirect us to a revised understanding of our situation, and on to a further round of mental activity.

So runs our loop of engagement, from expectancy to arousal, attention and sensory impressions; on to interpretation of those impressions, understanding them, feeling and valuing their import in the form of an experiential situation as an extension of our personal history; and then on to judging the significance of that situation, setting goals, planning projects and relationships, and finally, implementing them in terms of intentional actions in the world.

Consciousness doesn’t circle so much as spiral because every round is different. Details get refined, skills improved, awareness enlarged, goals more closely approached—all heightening the sense of engagement. Two things escape our attention because we cannot attend them: 1) the working of the brain in supporting the mind, and 2) the working of the world in formulating it’s response to our individual projects and relationships as enacted, which remains to be sensed and interpreted during further rounds of engagement.

In summary, our loops or spirals of engagement comprise formation of sensory impressions, construction of felt situations from those impressions as interpreted, and taking appropriate action in light and fulfillment of key situations. Round by round, consciousness streams by as it does on a journey or in games of tennis, baseball, chess, or charades. The play’s the thing; our engagements are ongoing. If we take a break, we simply engage in other ways, as in dreams and reveries, or while on vacation.

As children, we grow into ourselves, learning how to engage within the intimate circumstances of our rearing. As a result, there are as many styles of engagement as there are childhoods. For instance, as adults, those who learn to fend for themselves without empathic support often end up being out for themselves alone, or solely for their sort of people, and don’t worry about the general well-being or self-fulfillment of others so much as hitting the jackpot or scoring points for themselves. They can be highly competitive, even thriving on the misfortune of others, on making a killing, inciting violence, or waging wars of aggression. Cooperative or diplomatic engagements are not their thing. They act as if they were alone in the universe, so worry only about what they can get out of it, not what they can give to or share with others. Their game is king of the mountain, which pits one against everyone else, a stark parody of Darwinian evolution. “One for one, all for none,” is their cry, the source of a great deal of poverty, suffering, and human misery.

No, engagement with others is the key to survival, starting with being on good terms with yourself through introspection and self-understanding, moving up to satisfying and respectful engagements with others (often unlike yourself) through play, working together, cooperating—each identifying with all as multiple variations on a single theme. If you can’t see yourself in others, you are missing the point of why each one is unique. Which is to to add to a whole through individuation, complementarity, and cooperation. So do we all fit together in forming one human family within one earthling family, which we are in both cases.

No man and no woman is an island (Donne’s metaphor), entire of itself. We all may be unique, but we are not alone, and never have been. We are made to engage again and again—our minds are proof of that.

Each man and each woman is one piece of the puzzle (my metaphor) of humanity, and of all earthlings beyond. After 299 posts, that is my message. As ever, I remain, y’r brother, —Steve from planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Our minds hop from one to the next, situation-to-situation, like islands in an archipelago. From one instant of focus and feeling to another, that is our grand adventure, coming to clarity here, then moving on. Setting new goals, starting new projects, entering new relationships, one engagement after another like pearls on a string, event after event, adding up to a life.

There is an organic logic to this progression, like a sequence of base pairs serving as code for particular amino acids, which add to a particular protein, which folds to a particular shape, which performs a particular role in the life of a cell.

Every situation serves as the basis for the one after that. Awareness flows instant-to-instant, minute-to-minute, event-to-event, day-to-day. All adding, as I said, to a life.

Such are our loops of engagement. We reach for sensory impressions, interpret them, fit them to our understanding, then construct situations which we judge according to our fears, needs, and desires. From there we decide what action is called for if we are to be true to ourselves. We set realistic goals, channel our energy and skills into doable projects, seek help and support from those we trust, and make ourselves happen in the world in fitting response to the situation as we have constructed it from the evidence of our senses

After getting clear on a situation, we shift attention from perception to action—to what we are going to do about it. We set goals and get down to work. So does the life force—the urge to make ourselves happen—drive us to keep up with our situations as they develop.

Getting up, washing our face and combing our hair, walking the dog, fixing breakfast, getting the kids off to school, we prepare to take on the new day. We check the news or headlines to see how the situation has changed overnight. Then we schedule ourselves to get done the jobs we feel called to do, and do our best to meet the expectations we set for our daily performance. At the end of the day we review all we’ve done, and get set for the day after.

So goes the mind, the day, the life: situation-to-situation, with us at the core providing the energy, each doing his or her share of the work. All organic: body, mind, and life. The grand adventure in which we each play our part.

Organically, I remain, y’r friend, –Steve

Reflection 286: Layout

July 4, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin

Like the lay of the land, here’s how I see the lay of my mind.

I picture the basic layout of my mind (distinct from my brain) as consisting of two areas, an incoming, sensory area, and an outgoing, motor or behavioral area. Introspection ponders the interplay between the two areas to learn how sensory stimulation leads to physical action, and how action spurs further sensory stimulation.

My mind appears against a background of memories, dreams, a sense of my bodily position in space, among assorted cultural gifts such as language, numbers, science, religion, art, and other customary models for conducting our affairs, all of which I can draw upon at any time in becoming familiar with myself.

Too, my mind appears to be composed of diverse “elements” or “dimensions,” as a band is composed of players of diverse instruments, each contributing a different range of sounds. On the sensory side, I can detect degrees of interest or arousal, expectancy, and attention even before noticing sensory impressions at a particular level of sensory detail. I very quickly resort to interpretation of a concrete sensory impression in terms of a conceptual grouping of similar impressions, readily fitting it to a group I am familiar with through personal experience. This morning, for instance, I heard a bird call which I recognized as a series of notes sounded by what I call “black-capped chickadees,” thinking to myself, “that’s a chickadee” even though it may have been a mockingbird. I am capable of categorizing just a few chords as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Still on the sensory side of my mind, I discover positive or negative feelings about how I receive sensory impressions based on generalizing from prior experiences, along with values I place on such things in my organized field of understanding the relationship between various sensory experiences as interpreted.

The upshot of all this sensory processing in my mind is a sense of the situation I am engaged in, raising the question of how I am to make an appropriate response to that situation to further develop my engagement. Which advances me to consideration of dimensions on the motor side of my mind leading to physical action.

On the motor side, I begin with judgments about my current situation, which inform my decisions about the direction I want to head and the goals I would like to achieve in furthering my current engagement. The goals suggest various projects and relationships I might undertake to achieve them. Here I enter the planning stage that prepares the way for specific actions to take as appropriate to my situation as I construe it in my mind. Executing the moves I plan to make, I monitor my behavior as I go with awareness of how my body is positioned to accomplish what I set out to do.

Then my surroundings change (or not) in response to my actions, affecting (or not) my senses in new ways, setting up another round of sensory and motor engagement in my ever streaming consciousness.

Through introspection, I see that I rely on the separate dimensions of my mind to different degrees as my circumstances require, and that I have alternative levels of engagement to fall back on to save time and energy in achieving a desired result.

To sum up, some of the dimensions of my mind that introspection might encounter include, on the sensory side: arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impressions, various levels of detail, interpretation, feelings, values, understanding, all adding to the makeup of an existential situation as I construe it in awareness. And on the motor side: judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, plans, all leading to more-or-less effective action in the world.

I offer this rough anatomy of what introspection can lead you to discover in your mind not to discourage you but more to whet your curiosity about what you might learn about yourself if you stick at it for a time. Is it worth the effort? Since there is no other alternative available to us mortals short of living to the end, I would say yes, it is worth it. If I had known at thirty what I now know at almost eighty, I think I could have made more of a significant contribution to saving humanity from self-destruction in the name of “progress.” Where you put your personal effort is up to you. I just want to insert an option that doesn’t get much play these days because nobody stands to make money from your personal effort to know yourself better. Two things are certain: we have not yet bought or fought our way to a better or happier world. I say it’s time to try something so old it seems new.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2009)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.