My contention in this blog is that I, you, we all play the same game. We are smoothers-over to suit ourselves. We can’t help it, our auxiliary loops of perceptual adjustment and refinement do the work for us in the name of clarity, good contrast, and proper emphasis. To a man, to a woman, we are biased toward our own predilections, the teachings of our personal life experience.

Far beyond Dr. Roget’s influence, the evidence is all around us in the polarities with which we apprehend the world. In the military battles, political in-fighting, religious strife, business practices, sporting contests, artistic preferences, social engagements, entertainments, literary tastes—we know what we like, like what we know, and dispense with the rest.

Our minds work in ways that are almost as pat as that. As set according to our gleanings from the survival niches we have sowed and harvested up until now. We are self-made in ways we hardly suspect because we filter our own interests out of our engagements, seeing those of our partners with far greater clarity than we do our own—almost as if our interests played no part in our dealings with the world.

As if our personal meanings were accurate, just, and true, while the unmeanings of those we engage with are no more than scrabble, scribble, scrawl, and daub.

I am certain that Dr. Roget never recognized such a state of affairs in his own mind. How could he have? He was convinced that he was writing about states of affairs in the world, not in his mind. As scientists filter out their very standpoints as trained scholars in dealing with a supposedly objective universe of pure events happening within reach of their instruments of observation. As the Pope is considered to be infallible in his judgments as referee of all proper human engagements. As politicians paint their opponents as caricatures, themselves as noble knights in armor. As Buddhists avoid human suffering by declaring the individual self to be a mere construct, so how can anyone suffer in a mind focused on nothingness?

Without our knowing, the answers we seek are contained in the questions we ask. We don’t want the truth; we want affirmation of our proprietary truth as only our loyal prejudgments can deliver it. The ones we recognize as familiar because they are already within us, safe from harm in our very own black boxes, where they are part and parcel of any effort we might make to engage the world beyond our perimeter.

Talk about self-interest, we can’t live without it, which puts everyone we interact with at a disadvantage in being respectively self-interested in their own welfare. If we weren’t self-ish to the core, without a fairy godmother, we wouldn’t survive for one day. So we tilt the playing field in our favor, and do just fine on the basis of foregone conclusions that aren’t conclusions at all but unquestionable axioms of personal faith.

Who could imagine discovering such an outrageous position backed up by no less an authority than Dr. Peter Mark Roget? I, for one. Lone wayfarer that I am in hot pursuit of any secrets my mind might be holding back. I identify with Roget in having a lifelong interest in the workings and foibles of my own mind.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of the very ideas I am talking about in this blog. I may be only one authority, but I certainly serve in that office for the only mind I have access to. As you yourself serve in that capacity in service of your own mind.

I am trying to provoke you into examining your credentials for holding that office. Are you as fair and impartial as you believe and maintain? Can any of us be that fair? Can we seriously believe we are rational beings in any sense of the word?

Rather than dissolve the constructs that bind us together as conscious beings, I truly believe our best option is to get to know ourselves without the self-support system that comes with the territory of being an earnest and well-meaning person.

I think we can work around that inherent support system by regarding ourselves as if we were total strangers, and had no power to edit the data on which our conclusions are based. Yes, we can see ourselves with new eyes, hear ourselves with new ears, correct our self-image by including the very data we’ve been suppressing for all of these years.

A priori, we are neither good nor bad. We are what we are, wayfarers on a minor planet for a brief instant in the history of the universe. Imagine going to our deaths not knowing who we are. What we have truly accomplished, and at what cost to others and to our home planet.

It is never too early to take stock, and to keep taking stock for the rest of our travels. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to get to know ourselves before we inflict unwitting harm on others, believing all the while we are blameless.

Facing into myself, that is my project in this blog. No one can do it for me. The buck stops with me. As it does with each one of us. If we don’t respectively rise to that challenge, we know that no one else ever will. We are born to that challenge. It comes with being human. If we don’t take it on, can we truly claim to have lived, or claim to have lived truly, being stuck in the darkness within our personal black boxes for the duration of our lives?

Thank you, Peter Mark Roget, for unwittingly reflecting that wisdom back onto your readers, if only we would take effort to follow the line of thinking you set before us in your work as a light shining on how our minds might be organized.

The moral being: that everything we notice from our privileged position sheds light on our minds if we will but look for that hidden message.

Mindfully play and watch baseball; mindfully pore through Roget’s Thesaurus; two down—mindfully ogle the stars yet to come, starting with my next post.

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Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

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