489. Word Cluster

April 21, 2015

Knowing yourself flows from engaging yourself. That is, from your situated intelligence monitoring the actions you take in the role of subjective doer in engagement at the same time with sensory impressions you form in the role of objective perceiver.

At the core of each mind is the situated intelligence that seeks understanding as a state of mind in particular situations encountered during engagement. The understanding sought is to be found by examining the situation in which questions arise.

Those situations themselves are qualities of mind produced by the accrual of experience, which has broadly served as the subject of this blog. Situated intelligence is our agent for knowing the world by reviewing the situations our external environments stir up in us, those situations constituting the inner reality we actively engage with, no matter what else is going on around us.

What a marvelous system it is that we are given at birth and learn to use by living the life that we do. If we but question ourselves, we can trace an answer to how we ourselves frame the question under influence of the experiential situations that spur our engagements and experiences.

Others at our sides will do the same task their own way. Since questions do not pose themselves, the source of all questions is the situated intelligence at the core of our being. The essence of knowing is found by appealing to the interest and curiosity of she who wants to know. Where else can we look but to our own situations as we construct them in our respective minds?

This blog is probably as close as I will ever come to solving the mystery posed by my own mind as viewed by myself. One of my chief learnings is just how few people are concerned with the issues I raise here, most, apparently believing that answers lie in the material world, not their own minds.

I find that the dictum “Know Thyself” is dead to the world in which I find myself alive. As a culture, we are fixated on the brain as the source of all knowing, not the mind that works in conjunction with its own brain during engagements with nature, culture, community, and family to produce the miracle of consciousness.

But consciousness is more than a miracle. It is humanity’s cumulative response to the myriad challenges we are born to. The many facets of mind are the answer to the questions that Earth poses, not the material answer, brain. We have to earn our minds by applying them to the problems we face in just getting through the day, every day.

My chief discovery in writing this blog is a growing awareness of the quality of mind that makes my engagements possible with others and with the world we share together, a quality I don’t really have a name for. Sympathy and empathy are too overburdened already.

The word I am looking for takes the form of a word cluster that, as yet, has no heading. The cluster includes striving, hope, intelligence, wonder, confidence, durability, fragility, respect, responsibility, worthiness, persistence, and trust. These words refer to the mental tools I apply to myself every day. Gather them together and they all fall under the heading . . . what? What is the common denominator that makes effective engagement even possible?

Whatever it turns out to be, that missing heading captures the set of conditions that collectively enables engagement by self with non-self, first-person with world. It is a kind of regard that embraces self and others as being equally worthy and responsible at the same time. It balances durability with fragility, hope with despair, planning with spontaneity.

It is within the aura of that cluster of words that productive engagements can take place, that perception can spur meaning, judgment can spur action, action can spur engagement and subsequent perception.

Does such a word exist as would serve to head that cluster of terms referring to mental conditions? If not, I will have to invent one that fits the need I am alluding to. A word that defines the social contract by which it is safe, desirable, exciting, and gratifying for me to engage you—and you to engage me—in such a way that we will both be changed for the better. As Venus and Serena Williams engage their tennis opponents and take the game itself to a higher level for the benefit of all concerned. As life-long learners turn all experience into a positive good. As contests and rivalries blossom into win-win situations.

I am putting a positive spin on the heading I want because the cluster commonly refers to conditions that favor productive engagement, not isolation, violence, cruelty, distain, disaffection, and all the qualities of disengagement. Engagement enhances the survival of both parties in mutual interaction. It is positive and life-sustaining, not negative and life-stealing-away.

Enmity belongs in the cluster that is opposite to the one I am seeking, as does hatred, as does anger, as does violence. I am searching for a term that includes aspects of Earth, other planets, the sun, the whole shebang. It’s the old problem of a universe that contains both good and evil, angels and devils, heaven and hell. If they are polar opposites, I am emphasizing the pole that favors life and creativity, not death and destruction. Not ruination. Like Ozymandias, we all overextend ourselves and die in the end.

I am looking for a heading that is the opposite of entropy and “the universal heat death.” A term that opens the way to possibilities yet unachieved, not possibilities foreclosed.

The essence of the word I want is that it refers to a process that is ongoing, that has a future, that leads to hope, not regret, not despair. Clearly, I am not talking about using others for my personal advancement. Or about imposing myself on others. Or making myself dependent on others.

I am looking more for a sense of balance between respective durabilities and fragilities, hopes and fears, worthiness and failings. Trust and intelligence come pretty close, as long as they are mutual, and are joined in a process that evolves into a future. I am not seeking a gift that is given once and for all, nor for something either foolishly ventured or demanded.

Equality is of the essence here, between subject and object, so that both are not only taken into account, but can change places at any time. As sharing, turn-taking, and equality are the essence in sports.

Yes, I am looking for something that takes skill, cooperation, commitment, and concentration. Just like any sport you could name—baseball, soccer, track and field, cricket, speed skating, and all the rest (competition without needless violence).

Including everyday wayfaring, making our own way one step at a time. How does that translate to the situated intelligence in our minds that governs our ongoing engagements?

Mindfaring! Not wayfaring. That is, inside the mind, not outside in the world. That’s what I’ll call the heading I want. For, indeed, it takes properties of mind to run effective and ongoing engagements. We are all responsible for making our separate ways. They take place on the outside, but are governed on the inside of our respective black boxes. No one can do the job for us. We are all on our own.

How would that look as the heading of a word cluster (arranged in alphabetical order)?


  • Action
  • Confidence
  • Desirability
  • Durability
  • Engagement
  • Equality
  • Excitement
  • Fragility
  • Gratification
  • Hope
  • Intelligence
  • Judgment
  • Meaning
  • Persistence
  • Planning
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Safety
  • Spontaneity
  • Striving
  • Trust
  • Wonder
  • Worthiness

That’s my first stab at the clusters in my personal Thesaurus for the qualities of inner life that govern our engagements with the world. If I had another life to live, I’d work on listing the other 999 headings. But I don’t, so I won’t.

We all know the clusters of words that make life a series of failed engagements. We hear them on the news every day. That work has already been done.

It is the building of a platform for self-knowledge that requires doing. I propose that mindfaring is the way for those who choose the future.

Copyright © 2009


I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I’d been working late in the darkroom at the observatory, and was walking the two-and-a-half miles along Garden Street to Harvard Square, along Mass Ave., down Putnam Ave. to Magazine, jog right then left onto Tufts Street, to my home on the ground floor of a triple-decker in Cambridgeport. It was eleven o’clock at night. When it’s dark, I usually make a point of skirting Cambridge Common, that island of greenery in an ocean of traffic, but was tired so, carrying my yellow Kodak box of 11×14 prints, took the path straight through the trees. There were no lights. I was surprised how dark it was. By the glow from the Square, I could see the silhouette of the Abraham Lincoln memorial up ahead. And two shadows walking toward me. Two guys heading my way. I immediately thought of humming or whistling to signal I was no threat to them. The shadow on the right started running—a light, athletic burst toward me along the edge of the path. The other kept coming straight ahead. The runner stuck out his right arm as he passed, grabbed me by the neck and pulled me back, his left arm pinning my arms to my chest. The other guy walked up and started punching me in the face. As if still in the Army, I yelled “Mother fucker” as loud as I could. He struck again; I yelled again. Which is how it went for maybe ten seconds. Other people on the cross-path started making noise. Thinking about it later, I figured my shouting obscenities kept them at a distance. Having made their point (whatever it was), my assailants ran off across the grass, leaving me breathing hard but still standing at Abe’s feet, yellow box and prints spread along the path. I was furious, but had no object to vent my fury on. Faster than before, I headed for home. In front of the camera store in Harvard Square, I realized blood was clouding my left eye and spilling onto my jacket. At the police station in Central Square, I told a cop what had happened. He said there was nothing he could do. Walking down Putnam, I schemed to clutch a monkey wrench up my left sleeve from now on. I got home, cleaned myself up, and went to bed. I had a classic shiner for a couple of weeks. And carried the wrench for a month or so, until I forgot about it.


What interests me about this episode forty-three years later is that I felt anger when attacked but not fear—even as the situation became obviously threatening. Instead, I thought of signaling the two guys that I was no threat to them when—at the time—I had more reason to believe they were a threat to me. All I can say is my head must have stayed behind in the darkroom. Perhaps I had walked that route so many times that I had switched to automatic pilot as Thoreau did when navigating the woods between Concord and Walden at night. But that feels like a rhetorical cop-out.


Looking back, I see now that my consciousness was in submissive mode. As it used to be when I jogged past a barking dog and looked everywhere except into those angry eyes. When it comes to confrontations, one tactic is to back down and become nonthreatening by blending into the background. That’s the Casper Milquetoast ploy. Become a nonentity and danger will pass you by.


But once the first guy held me from behind—lake a cornered rat—and fear was beside the point, I became angry. Not being able to physically defend myself, I shouted obscenities into the air. I became the cat standing sideways, hair standing on end. The mother sandpiper spreading her wings against the blue jay lusting after her brood. Yes, I tried to make myself larger than life.


I’ve done that a lot. Maybe that’s where road rage comes from. Being meek until somebody cuts in front of you, then you explode. I’ve exploded at cops a number of times, like when I’ve edged out to get a view of traffic coming both ways, and one says I didn’t stop at the stop sign. Me, the almost perfect driver. Who does he think he is!? Nothing is more satisfying than righteous indignation. From zero emotion to full fury in sixty milliseconds, bypassing fear altogether.


Come to think of it, I’ve often been a risk-taker while, at the same time, telling others to be careful. What’s going on? At an NTL training session in the 1970s, the trainers arranged chairs in a spiral for a particular session, then let us students into the room to sit where we wanted. I sat in the lap of the big black trainer who was anchoring the spiral from chair No. 1. How obnoxious could I get? He was sitting where I wanted to be, in the center of things. We locked eyes and neither backed down. Talk about consciousness emerging full-blown from particular situations, here was Exhibit A for the two of us.


As a hiker, I’ve always pushed beyond terrain that was familiar to me. What’s up ahead, around that boulder, over that hill? I have always pushed beyond where I went last time. Often transgressing where I didn’t belong. I remember a Bird Colonel telling me I was the only enlisted man he’d let tell him where to stand (I was taking a picture of the regimental baseball team).


Fear, risk, anger, aggression—in consciousness they all fit together somehow. My autonomic nervous system is telling me that I’m venturing into the emotional mother lode here, a hint of the wealth that’s sure to lie ahead. I’ll turn back now, and leave those discoveries for another day when I’ve more time to spend.