(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.

 

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Reflection 67: Coma

February 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Trust Jonathan Schell to speak the truth. His “Obama and the Return of the Real” (The Nation, February 9, 2009, pages 18-22) spells out the commonality between five current crises—economic, ecological, energy/natural resources, military/nuclear armaments, and American colonialism. “All the crises,” says Schell, “display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions.” He calls this endemic spread of delusion, “a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life.” He sketches details of the story yet to be told:

 

of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.

 

I call this collapse of trusted institutions a massive failure of consciousness. It’s not so much that regulators have failed to impose standards from the outside as that individuals have failed to exercise judgment in consciously and deliberately regulating their own behavior from the inside. The attitude has been to do what you can get away with when no one is watching. Hence the urge to privatize and deal secretly with matters which rightfully should be conducted in the open as public affairs.

 

Through the deeds of its most powerful leaders and institutions, influential Americans have worked their way into a frame of mind where short-term, personal self-interest has been designated the highest priority. This is cited as a basic economic principle put forward by no less a figure than Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (1776). But the context for that notion was Smith’s earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which he wrote:

 

The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. He is at all times willing, too, that the interest of this order or society should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the state or sovereignty of which it is only a subordinate part: he should, therefore, be equally willing that all those inferior interests should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the universe, to the interest of that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director (Prometheus Books, page 346).

 

Where have you ever seen that idea cited as the true foundation on which he built the liberal national capitalism put forward in the later book? Yet in Wealth of Nations itself he wrote this:

 

Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society (Modern Library, page 482, italics added).

 

Without placing that quotation in the context of the prior one, it reads as if Smith is advancing the notion that self-interest determines what is advantageous to society, whereas he is saying just the opposite, that what is beneficial to society determines what is to each individual’s advantage and governs how he should exert himself. The image of the invisible hand that Smith introduces three pages later is not the hand of self-interest but that of an implicit, moral and social influence transcending self-interest.

 

The perpetrators (who wove the five crises into what Schell calls “a kind of Gordian knot”) all operated within the same frame of mind which regards personal judgment as superfluous, whereas it is truly at the core of the moral dimension of consciousness and human action. Lack of oversight is secondary when lack of personal judgment is the problem precisely.

 

Where leaders are corrupt, they corrupt the system all the way down. Where leaders are not fully conscious or responsible, the institutions they head become brain dead and operate in a coma.

 

Waving the banner “Make Obama Fail,” the coma-stricken Republicans are gleefully stonewalling Obama’s efforts at recovery, taking joy in balking his efforts however they can. Rather than solving the nation’s problems, they are compounding them. In lockstep frame of mind, they take pride in putting their judgment to sleep, which is exactly what their leaders tell them to do. They think they are playing a game when the global situation calls for hard labor.

 

That is the cause of the five crises: playing games to score the most points. As if life were a game. Bush-Cheney did it for the sake of personal power. What they did was turn our democracy into a dictatorship for the duration of their reign. Enron tried it. Wall Street got good at it. The mortgage industry did its best. Energy and transportation industries play their parts. Backed by the pentagon, the arms industry kills people—foreigners and Americans alike—as if they were so many pawns in a game of chess.

 

This is worse than a delusion. It is a crime against the Earth and all life.

 

As for the rest of us, we take the Do Not Disturb sign on the doors of our great institutions quite literally. Don’t make waves. It isn’t patriotic. So we don’t. Which is how we put ourselves into a stupor all by ourselves. As if it were our duty to self-administer drugs to dull our senses. We are in this together because we are all half-asleep.

 

Failures of consciousness all round! Until we come to grips with that one, the situation isn’t going to get any better. Who’s to revive us? There’s nobody here but us chickens.

 

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