Without apology, I can truly state that I am the world’s leading expert on the mental goings-on within my personal black box according to the perspectives provided by my own mind from inside that box. You can make the same claim for yourself.

Other than by my personal understanding as based on my reading in psychology and neuroscience, I have no authority to speak about events taking place on a neurochemical level in any brain whatsoever.

Brain is implicit in mind at every stage of engagement. So too is the perceptual energy flowing through pathways within the brain, energy that reflects its spatial and temporal organization upon being translated into neural terms by our body’s sensory receptors.

Though my view of these processes has been formed during a long course of self-reflection, I generalize here by writing variously in reference to “I,” “you,” and “we” as if I were intimately acquainted with mental events in everyone’s brain (including yours). I do this to encourage readers to take part in the mental exercise I am performing on myself, so to offer other wayfarers an opportunity for self-discovery in light of their own experience. Feel free to modify my offer as you see fit so that your findings are your own.

Personal memory plays in the background of every engagement as called for by the different situations and patterns of stimulation we encounter. This provides a backstory that helps us translate what is happening into the familiar terms of our mental understanding.

The plot runs like this: starting with arousal so that memory is poised to entertain signals stirred by our readiness to pay attention, an inner sense of the current situation we are dealing with focuses expectancy on what is likely to happen.

What we notice in particular is deviations from, or exceptions to, our expectancies. Novel features catch our attention because they have much to tell us in relation to the pattern of what we expected to find, which instantly becomes background to what actually strikes our senses.

Looking up from a hospital bed (where I was having stitches put in my hand after a recent fall on slippery shoreline rocks), I noticed, not the pattern of white netting that attached the curtain around my bed to a track in the ceiling, but the one-inch hole in that netting that formed a black exception to the white regularity of that grid of fibers.

Attention is drawn to the buzzing fly that is a conspicuous exception to the silence around us, to the lightning striking out of dark clouds, to the silhouette of the sole sandpiper running along the tideline, to the stain on the white tablecloth, the cough arising from a rapt audience, the new rattle in our car, and so on.

Expectancy establishes the pattern of what we are used to seeing; attention rushes in to focus on particular details that stand out against the background of those expectations.



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 2012 by Steve Perrin.

We all have a right to claim that we were behind the door when manuals for our minds were handed out, but there are no such manuals, and never have been. Instead, we are given a life of trial and error. If we live long enough to make all the standard mistakes, along with those we invent on our own, by the time we die we will be familiar with one mind at least, so should count ourselves lucky.

In 2011 when I was 79 years old, having observed the workings of my own mind for thirty years, I brought out Consciousness: The Book, which deals with my particular brand of consciousness–too late to do me much good.

My aim now is to help others undertake introspective studies of their minds before they max out their normal life expectancies in partying for a living, or perhaps studying, working, going to the beach or the movies–whatever seems a good idea at the time, but diverts attention without helping them to know themselves any more than they already do.

Yes, you can approach your own mind through the well paved avenues of psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and all the rest, but since each one of us is unique, I don’t recommend -ologizing yourself, which is bound to lead you into the error of confusing your mind with the road you are traveling at the time. Instead, I recommend treating your personal uniqueness as a virtue to be pursued to the end. No matter if it’s a sample of only one. To amount to something, you have to count as something. You have to count as something, namely, yourself.

I have found that a good way to to begin a program of personal introspection is by considering your likes and dislikes–what cheers you over against what upsets you. Our consciousness is driven by such polarities all our lives, so monitoring our engagements (projects, relationships) is relatively easy in terms of how we feel about what we are paying attention to at the moment. Like now, this very instant. How’s it going? Good, bad, or so-so? That is, is your present engagement progressing as you’d hoped it would, is it being impeded by some obstacle, or just lurching along ready to veer toward the better or worse?

By observing the state of what we’re trying to do, we can get a grip on our goals, our feelings, our tools and equipment, our skills, hopes, fears, our energy level, and so on. We come to see ourselves standing amid several dimensions of the expectant consciousness we bring to bear on the engagement we currently have under way.

How do you do?, you ask yourself. What’s up? How’s it going? Yes, it’s OK to talk to yourself. That’s what introspection is for–getting to know yourself. Not looking at things on the outside (as if you could see them), but inside your mind where the action is. Just checking. Things running smoothly? Or perhaps a bit rough? Hey, this is your life! It matters what sort of answer you give when you pay attention to yourself by asking personal questions. How is it with me? I says to myself, What’s been keeping you?; I thought you’d never ask. Maybe you didn’t care, or didn’t like me very much.

Once the ice has been broken, there’s no end of things to get into, questions to ask yourself, things to explore and find out. In the past, you may have been shushed by others who were preoccupied when you asked one question too many. But when you’re both the questioner and answerer in your own best interest, it’s astounding what a simple mic check can lead to.

So that’s the preface to my personal manual on introspection–if I were to write it today–which I just did in the form of this post to my blog on consciousness.

How are things going with you? What’s on your mind just now? Perhaps not introspection, but certainly related to introspection, the skill no one mentioned to you or taught you in school.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve

(Copyright © 2010)

This blog is an extension of a project I started in July, 2006 in a summer research seminar led by the Quaker Institute for the Future at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Each member worked for a month on a project in an atmosphere of communal discernment, making several presentations to the group, offering comments and suggestions in an atmosphere of mutual trust. My project was a Power-Point promoting resolution of conflicts over marine issues on the Maine coast. How, I asked, could people come to mutual agreement on issues they approached from divergent points of view? My conclusion was that human consciousness is such a personal matter, there is no way fully to appreciate another’s perspective. Mapping our life experiences onto our respective worlds as we do, we effectively live in parallel universes ruled by different assumptions, customs, rules, and desires, making agreement about anything extremely difficult.

Which didn’t advance my project idea very far, if at all. Following the seminar, I put together several more detailed presentations, each falling short of my ambitions. It struck me I might be working in the wrong medium, so took to blogging about consciousness as an alternative route to the same goal. After 199 posts, am I any further along than I was? Yes and no. I have developed several new ways of looking at the problem, and broadened my respect for the difficulty of what I am trying to do, which I see now, comes with the territory of being human. Consciousness is a very flexible tool for overcoming short-term difficulties, but it is less helpful in the long term because rooted in the practical here and now, not the necessarily conceptual then of the future.

In effect, at the same time they are the bases we stand on, our past ways often prevent us from taking new positions in unfamiliar situations. And every new day is an unfamiliar situation (if it’s not, it’s not a new day). Changing our ways requires we give up old habits of making ourselves happen in the universe. If we can’t slough the skin we present to the world, then it’s bound to become dry and disfiguring. Is that what we want—to cling to what we’ve already become? Or can we keep up with changing times by incorporating new factors into our makeup?

On that note, I went back to Reflection 1: Dying Crow, to see where I was when I began this series of posts. Here’s the “snippet” of consciousness I dealt with in October 2008:

I am driving along a country road and see a dead crow ahead. No, not dead, a dying crow—its wing feebly flapping the air. A shadow on the edge of the shoulder showing signs of life. What should I do? For me, this is a worst-case scenario. I can’t just drive by and leave it to suffer. I am aware of strong feelings welling within me. I don’t want to stop and wring its neck, but what else can I do? I’d rather keep going. I am conflicted. Then, as I approach the dying crow, I see it differently—a trash bag blowing in the wind. Yes, definitely, a black plastic bag agitated by the wash from passing cars. Relieved, I drive on.

Categorization, that’s what I was dealing with. Mapping my values, attitudes, and experience onto the world—and getting it wrong. I caught myself in the act of falsely projecting my fears and assumptions onto an innocent phenomenon—a dark, shifting shape by the side of the road. In that instant, I confront not a dying crow but my own consciousness remaking the world to suit itself.

In Reflection 4: Crash, I did exactly the same thing in seeing a swept-back, metal TV antenna gleaming in sunlight as a crashing airplane. In Reflection 6, I saw a complete stranger ahead of me on the sidewalk as my friend, Fred, because he was dressed as Fred would have dressed and walked with a similar gait. Erroneously mapping concepts onto my immediate surroundings, that’s where I began this blog. I didn’t use the word “categorization” because it wasn’t in my working vocabulary, but I see now that’s what I was dealing with.

In Reflection 3: Mia Culpa, I tell of looking for a jar of mustard—and not finding it anywhere—even though I looked right at it several times in my search. What could happen to a jar of mustard, a fixture in my very idea of kitchen and refrigerator? What did happen was that it was lying on its side, presenting a round, red top, not the half-full, bent-sided jar I had in mind. Wrong gestalt. I had the wrong image of what I was looking for. The pattern I was seeking didn’t exist because it had morphed into an unconventional view I didn’t associate with mustard. One of life’s minor situations, and an occasion for learning about my habitual search strategies. Categorization, again, gone sour. Casting trite expectations onto my little world, I came up empty-handed and still hungry. 

In Reflection 5: Sunflowers, I told of going upstairs to get something, and not seeing a bunch of huge sunflowers in a vase that I passed within six inches of while both coming and going. I was so fixated on whatever I’d come after as to be functionally blind. “Do you like the sunflowers?” asks Carole. “What sunflowers?” says I. Again, a void in my personal space because, for me, sunflowers weren’t the issue, so I wasn’t looking for them. And I don’t seem to see what I’m not looking for. Expectancy, attention, and categorization are key in how I map my mind onto the world, making the world I construe for myself absolutely my personal world. Anyone coming right behind me would construct a different world based on her expectations, attention, and habitual modes of categorization.

All of which have consequences. In Reflection 10: Diagnosis, I told of going to an eminent doctor who, thinking I had cystic fibrosis, put me in hospital for a week of tests intended to confirm his hunch. Except they didn’t. He released me, not having a clue what I had (which, as it turned out thirty years later, was celiac disease all along). Diagnosis is how we decide between our options for categorizing particular patterns that interest us. It is a way of getting hold of the pattern so we’re sure it’s this one and not that one. Putting a name to a pattern of symptoms, we then apply the standard remedy or customary course of treatment. Who are we? Diagnosticians, every one. Or cartographers, bent on mapping our expectancies onto phenomena that matter to us. Then acting (rightly or wrongly) on the basis of the diagnosis we have mapped out.

In Reflection 37: Terms of Endearment, I blogged about giving names to persons or things that change our lives. In hindsight, I see I was dealing with an aspect of categorization by relying on prior experience in becoming conscious of something new:

In naming loved ones, babies, pets, boats, towns, mountains, and constellations in the sky, we give meaning to particular phenomena in our experience, while at the same time, giving concrete form to values which are important to us. Naming is a simultaneous giving and taking within consciousness, a giving of ourselves and a taking-in of the world, claiming it as our world.

Naming is applied intentionality, a defining characteristic of consciousness:

Looking for, seeing as, consciousness of—this is how we fit the world to preconceived plans. We take those plans with us wherever we go. We bring the world into being as a variation on the intentional order we carry in our heads.

Scary, to think that how we name our children and our pets reveals who we are. But there it is: consciousness projecting itself onto patterns in our heads, and those named patterns becoming features of the world we wrap ourselves in. Other cultures, other people—other quilts for consciousness.

Throughout this blog, I have tried to deal with metaphor as a variant form of intentionality, also deliberately applied. Intentionality is habitual categorization, representing a personal style of mapping concepts derived from prior experiences onto patterns that emerge in everyday life. Which is exactly what categorization does for us in giving meaning to sensory patterns and relationships. When personal meanings are an issue, metaphor tells the world emphatically how we see it in light of our experience.

Humor, too, reveals categorizations by setting up a conceptual framework or situation that is fulfilled by a specific punch line, resolving a tense situation (because of frustrated or confounded expectancy) in an apt yet novel manner, eliciting laughter—our stock response to nonthreatening surprises.

Categorization is a basic feature of consciousness that surfaces in almost everything we do. Human understanding is a form of categorization—of lending character to the world based on how we choose to depict it from our point of view. The bulk of this blog, it turns out in hindsight, deals with aspects of categorizing as a key aspect of mind. Dying crows, crashing planes, missing mustard jars, strangers mistaken for friends, sunflowers not seen, naming, metaphors, humor—here in each case is meaning-making in action, the human mind at work trying to find sense in its relevant universe by mapping abstract concepts from the past onto sensory patterns in the here and the now.

It was Gerald M. Edelman who gave me the word “categorization,” which he distinguishes from the philosophical sort by calling “perceptual categorization.” In the Glossary to Wider than the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness (Yale, 2004), he lists perceptual categorization as, “The process by which the brain ‘carves the world up’ to yield adaptive categories. The most fundamental of early cognitive functions.” Reading his works this past winter, I realized he and I were talking about similar aspects of mind using different words. In addition, Edelman suggests not only a neural substrate, but an evolutionary or adaptive origin as well, both of which lie beyond my limited experience. Seeing categorization as the central core of consciousness, I switched to Edelman’s way of thinking, trying to work my way into the concept, which keeps growing larger and more encompassing in my understanding. It provides a fitting culmination to this blog, letting me tie much of what I have written together—a major categorizational shift in my way of thinking.

I call this next-to-last post (I am retiring for now) “Letting Go” because one part of categorization I haven’t dealt with is how we grow to become more discriminating categorizers by letting go of, or transcending, the limits imposed on our seeing-the-world by the narrowness of our lived experience. If conflict resolution between those who see the world differently is an issue, then I believe the best solution might be to let go of our conflictive selves in order to grow into larger persons with broader abilities to find meaning in the patterns we see in the world. It’s OK for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims, atheists to be atheists, people to be who they are because they cannot reinvent themselves as someone else. Clearly, this requires self-transcendence of us all. If our categorizations become hardened because written in stone for all time, we are incapable of waking up to a new day. When, in fact, every day is given us as a new challenge because the past no longer exists. It is up to us to keep up with the sun and the seasons by renewing ourselves to meet the challenge of today, not those of yesterday, or thousands of years before that.

I say we need to discover more humor in our rigid categorizations by rising above ourselves and looking down, seeing ourselves as characters in a story (or is it a joke?). That is, of letting go the chains we wrap round our minds as if we were creatures, not of the instant, but of all time, ever the same because we are trapped in our minds and cannot get out.

Did Moses know it all? Did Jesus? Mohammed? Shaping ourselves in their image by repeating words ascribed to them, we become cardboard cutouts of so many smiling waiters or waitresses bringing trays filled with mugs of beer to assure our satisfaction and happiness. As if a particular brand of beer—or religion—held the answer to all questions. As if loyal or even orthodox adherence to the past was the way to the future. As if we knew now what the future will bring, and it will be as we describe it, without fail. As if each day was not new, but only an opportunity for us to cram it into the mold of the past to fit concepts we have in mind because that is the only way we can reliably know who we are. As if we were not flesh-and-blood humans but creatures of stone, much like the terracotta warriors of China.

In truth, consciousness has the power to reinvent itself in response to the situation each of us finds him-or-herself in today. We may not be able to beam ourselves into new bodies, but we can transcend the limits we put on ourselves yesterday and the day before. Indeed, it is we who bind our minds with steel bands lest we think a new thought or dream of casting-off our old, worn-out personalities and tired ideas. They are already dead; all we need do is let go and shed them as our former selves. It is not written anywhere that who we were is who we are for all time. That is a trap laid by unsupple minds to catch themselves changing and growing into new selves more suited to the new day. It’s as if people were holding their breath, stopping their blood from flowing, not thinking new thoughts. Not daring to live.

One thing is certain: rigidity of consciousness is a catatonic state of mind that locks the living world into a dead cartoon of the world as it might be if we but opened our eyes. What are we to do? Release the past from the chains we’ve put round it and let it go. I am not—and cannot be—the child I was, or the man I hoped to become. I am wholly other because I have given myself to my environment as it flows through my senses. I am none other than a creature of my time and place on this planet. I turn with the Earth so that I can be fully what it makes of me. That way, I evolve. That is the only way I can enjoy the ride—which is the trip of a lifetime. My lifetime. My days as a conscious son of the Earth.

No, they don’t teach that in school. Everyone is too anxious to leave young minds up to chance. We invent curriculums and standardized tests, which are mental chains in themselves. Think of the irony of a gang of unique kids being herded into one end of the education system and cranked out as a uniform standard product at the other end. What has been lost in the process is the quality of individual uniqueness, sole fount of imagination, invention, and ultimately, survival under ever-changing yet unique circumstances and conditions. That is, our humanity has been stripped away because, by biological definition, each of us is unlike any other.

What a difference it makes to conceive of yourself as a unique being instead of a replica of everyone else. That way, you can reinvent yourself as you choose and don’t have to live up to the identity laid upon you by the expectations of your peers. Are you living for them? Is that how it is? They are your guides and masters, your controllers? Your life is an extension of theirs? If so, that is because you have already surrendered and are dead but don’t know it.

Let go of all that. Open yourself to discovery. Let the world in through your senses, not those of celebrities, columnists, loud talkers, or pundits. Activate your own mapping skills so that you live in your own personal territory, not the cell assigned to you. That territory is in your head and belongs solely to you. Never trade it away for any reason. Live by your own wits, not the dictates of others. Open yourself to the sensory patterns flowing around you; immerse yourself in them. Deal with the patterns of your time and your place on this Earth. Then lay meaning on those patterns as best you can account for them. And act on those meanings to see if they are accurate or not. If not, try again—something different this time. Not always the same as if you were a stone warrior, a true believer in the single, true faith.

That’s what I mean by “letting go.” Really, becoming yourself and fulfilling the potential you were born to. Is there any other way to live? Evidently there is—many of us dragging in chains our whole lives, thinking thoughts approved by others in advance. And consorting only with those who categorize their sensory worlds as we do, because it is much too dangerous to stake out individual territories for ourselves.

With the result that we are not truly alive, or truly ourselves, but are some kind of zooid living out a life sentence, hoping it will end soon, without pain or mishap. Which means not taking the risk of making ourselves happen in the world as if each of us were an individual capable of independent action, thought, and responsibility. Trapped by outdated ideas, we live in the old days, as we have been taught. Discovering freedom requires us to let go of all that. We have the mental equipment to do it. And a methodology for knowing ourselves as categorizers and sensory pattern detectors (go back and read this blog if you missed that part) who make their own worlds. Mental chains are a challenge meant to be mastered—as Alexander undid the Gordian Knot.

Gordian Knot Pattern


Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Projects are ways to wrap a future around ourselves. I put it that way because the future isn’t a world we are moving toward or into, but a world we make happen for ourselves. It isn’t already prefigured, just waiting for us to come along. It’s something we all have to create for ourselves on foundations we’ve already laid. The craft of consciousness is building a future, of extending a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be. Building a future is a lot like riding a bucking bronco—you’re not sure who’s in charge, but you’re having the ride of a lifetime.

Future-building is often discussed in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, personnel, training, supplies, and equipment, making it sound like war games at West Point. Actually, it’s messier than that because your plans have to fit with those around you, and with events no one can anticipate (such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, droughts). As a result, we tend to work on our futures one small project at a time, thinking more on the scale of cooking dinner or making the bed than winning major battles. Most of us, like alcoholics, are concerned with just getting through the day. We’ll deal with tomorrow when we get to it.

Building a future one small project at a time makes sense because that’s the scale consciousness is best suited for. If the goal is too fuzzy or abstract, it’s more like a dream than anything we can attain by taking a sequence of actual steps. If we can’t visualize it in concrete terms, we probably won’t live long enough to realize our plan. Small is beautiful because it’s attainable. Start by preparing the ground for the first seed. If we can’t plan our garden while walking the dog, it might prove a bigger project than we can handle.

Putting a picture puzzle together is a good example of a doable project. We select which puzzle we want to work on—it has to be an image that appeals to us, with the right number of pieces, or we’ll lose interest. We start by spreading the pieces on a flat surface we can spare for the duration, then turn them face up where we can get at them. We sort them by color, texture, or flat edges; then, beginning with the obvious groupings (such as connecting edge pieces to form a frame), work on fitting them together. As we get into it, we start looking for pieces with individual characteristics—with personalities to match their surroundings. We concentrate on one area at a time, then try linking different areas by building bridges between them. There are always a few notorious pieces we can’t find, but eventually we combine subtle clues of shape, color, texture, size—and everything fits. Mission accomplished.

Except it isn’t that much of a mission because the secret of picture puzzles is that they come with everything we need to do the job—including a picture on the box to show what we’re working toward. Some projects come in kit form like picture puzzles, but the ones we are likely to take on in building a future for ourselves don’t come prepackaged, so are more of a challenge to consciousness. It’s up to us to decide what tools and materials we’ll need, how to gather them, how to use them, in what order, and how to get help when we need it because we’re in over our head. There are a lot of adult education courses that will help us develop the skills we’ll need, and self-help books on just about every kind of project we’ll want to try our hand at.

For me, the interesting side of projects is the mental skills we’ve already acquired in the process of living our particular lives. These provide the underlayment of every job we’re likely to undertake. That is, the projects that make sense to us are apt to be extensions of ones we’ve worked on before. Our trajectories through the universe start in earliest childhood, and by the time we’re in high school their general direction is pretty much set. After that, we may refine our course settings by a few degrees, but largely keep on by exploring territories that feel familiar to us, and offer challenges and opportunities that have meaning because they extend sensitivities and abilities we already possess in latent or rudimentary form.

Projects make sense to us if they arise from life situations we’ve already experienced or are currently engaged in. They don’t gel as projects just out of the blue; our whole life points to them as sensible next steps. Our job is to recognize them as further opportunities for refining or expanding who we are. Single mothers with young children still want to get ahead in life, so they can either seek Mr. Right, or set off to develop their personal skills and earning power because they are not likely to trust another man to shelter them from having to care for themselves and their children. Working, developing job skills, having a social life, and childcare become aspects of whatever projects suggest themselves from their earlier experiences. Perhaps further schooling is a possibility if grandparents, social services, friends, a part-time job, and personal determination combine to create a situation where that makes practical sense.

The chief benefit of life situations is how wonderfully they focus attention on practical details in the here and now. Projects are built from just such details because that is the reality they are meant to address. Projects by nature are more concrete than abstract. They may start as conceptual solutions to one of life’s challenges, but they very quickly get down to the nitty-gritty of how they are to be implemented in the real world. That is, personal motivation is essential to the success of any project we are likely to stick with to the end.

The heart of any project is the loop of engagement by which we act in the world to make ourselves happen in a particular way, then learn from the results how we must refine our skills to act more effectively the next time. That ongoing loop is what we need to attend to in both its active and receptive aspects as the project develops in order to assure personal advancement toward the goal we are bent on achieving in the future we are crafting for ourselves. This is where our fingers meet the rawhide in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is doable precisely because it is what consciousness is given each of us to exercise in meeting the unpredictable challenges life can throw at us. Insects are preprogrammed to survive a limited range of life situations; primates are less set in their ways in order to adapt to the variety of situations they are apt to encounter. Humans are the most adaptable of all species because they can take on special projects in meeting challenges unprecedented throughout their evolution.

The essence of any project is its categorization of the situation from which it emerges, its categorization of the goal to be reached, and its categorization of the means for bridging from the situation to that particular goal. Everything depends on how we see the problem, the solution, and the means linking the two. This is where judgment enters the picture to scan both episodic and conceptual memories in relation to sensory patterns defining the situation in an attempt to map an appropriate understanding onto the situation so that a specific project is suggested as a personal way to meet the demands imposed by the situation. In other words, human judgment interprets the current situation as guided by prior experience, which leads to how the project is structured as an answer to the question raised by the nature of the situation itself. This is the true miracle of the human mind—that it can do this through a series of successively approximate matches between memories and existential situations so that a sensible course of action emerges from the life history of the individuals involved.

If no such course of action readily suggests itself to judgment, cultural input can be sought to see what others would do under like circumstances, what conventional wisdom would recommend, how various experts would proceed. This is where education enters into a project to meet a need an individual can’t meet on his own. Perhaps further training is indicated—formal, informal, or on-the-job. Perhaps, in hopes the situation will go away, a course of therapy might be pursued as an alternative, particularly if the seeker places trust in figures of reputed authority.

Too, a change in perspective might be in order if the seeker feels she may have mischaracterized the situation, or is not looking at it on an appropriate level of discernment. “What would you do in my situation?” she might ask; “Am I overlooking something, or making a mountain of a molehill?”

And, to wrap this up, projects require a certain amount of arousal and personal investment to get and stay underway. Think of the arousal of spectators at football, basketball, or hockey games where the situation changes in the moment: the call is three balls and two strikes with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or the score is tied with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Fans hoot and howl, wave their arms, jump up and down because they see so much riding on the play: they are fully aroused, vigilant, and invested, as if life itself hung in the balance. If the seeker feels not a stab of excitement, fright, or anxiety, then perhaps the project doesn’t really answer her professed need to right the situation at issue. Without passion and arousal, nothing in the world would ever get done because nothing, apparently, needs fixing.

I haven’t mentioned personal, biological values (such as sex, food, drink, shelter, rest, health, strength, knowhow, worthy challenge, order, safety, community, etc.) as essential to projects, but of course they are. Everything we do expresses a variety of biological needs. Even collecting stamps or building ships in bottles provide physical and mental challenges based on detailed engagement with the sensory world, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom in an underutilized mind.

As it is, dinners get cooked and put on the table, term papers get written, gardens planted, vacations taken, degrees granted, cars repaired, babies born, cavities filled, candidates elected (or not), and the future arrives as a new beginning for the world. Opening up opportunities for another round of situations going wrong, wheels requiring reinvention, and new projects getting started because no matter what the future brings, no one will be entirely satisfied with how things have developed, and consciousness can always be counted on to suggest new ways personal situations can be improved.

Things can always be improved.


(Copyright © 2010)

If the future is all in our minds, that is equally true of distractions which keep us from looking ahead. To write a post I have to clear the decks of litter that will distract me from the topic I want to reflect on. Sounds from a radio or TV coming through the walls of my apartment, for instance, drive me nuts because my mind tries to make sense of what it’s hearing. The same for voices coming from the hallway, or shouts in the street. But most of all the enemy lies within the conflicting thoughts that flit like static electricity through my brain. With so many internal goings-on, I don’t know which channel to turn to, so end up letting them have their way with me, focusing on none, getting nothing done.

The art of countering distractions is to listen to them all, prioritize their urgency, then concentrate on each one in turn. That takes willpower, but somehow it works. The main thing is to acknowledge each item so it doesn’t keep nagging. If I give it a place in the queue, then it waits quietly until its turn comes and I can give it my full attention.

Easy to say, hard to do. For the past month I’ve been working on two PowerPoint presentations, one on what I’ve learned about eelgrass in the past twenty years, the other on granite quarries and quarrying around Taunton Bay. My goal is to have two shows ready for the summer series of talks I’m putting together for Taunton Bay Education Center. I’ve already got four speakers signed up, have yet to hear back from a fifth, and am working on the two talks I plan to give. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep up with my blog. That is, stay ahead of the Monday and Thursday schedule I’ve set for myself in order to get anything done at all. If I don’t plan ahead and work ahead, I find I am always off-balance playing catch-up, doing a poor job of everything because I can’t focus my mind on any one thing.

I’m also involved with the issue of rockweed harvesting in Maine, which I’ve handled by making it the topic of three or four posts to my blog. In a crunch, that strategy sometimes works—putting two things together so I can deal with them as one item. That helps me organize my thoughts so I can actually get something done. But if there isn’t a true connection between disparate items, then it becomes an exercise in frustration trying to force them together.

I have other things on my mind from the senior housing unit where I live, from Quaker Meeting, from the state of the world such as it is, from family, friends, and random acquaintances. All of which leave traces in my mind, requiring me to sort and prioritize them if I am to get anything done at all. They all have the same common denominator in taking up space in my conscious mind. The buck for organizing my concerns stops with me, Organizer-in-Chief of my own thoughts, Head Payer of Attention, Chair of my own Planning Committee, and Works Committee to boot.

I think I blog to stay sane. That is, blogging for me is largely a process for sorting my concerns so I can work on them one at a time. Nothing is more important than getting my act together, and blogging is a way for doing just that. Today is the day for taking up distractions. Yesterday it was the tree that fell in the park, before that Peter Roget’s amazing mental Thesaurus, rockweed harvesting, differences between religious and scientific thinking, and so on, back through the recent history of how I’ve been steering my consciousness and my life through the maze of things as they present themselves (actually, it’s my consciousness steering me). No one can do that job for me, or if they try, then I no longer feel like myself. I’m their employee, their servant, their pawn. Which I have come to see is the normal state for a great many people. Signing a job contract is truly selling a big part of your soul because you pledge to deal with your employer’s concerns, not your own. Or as I’ve mentioned, trying to fit the two concerns together so you can act on them both—getting paid for doing the work your supervisor assigns you. Leaving you hollow in one sense, but well-fed in another.

This post rises out of a list I made of things I’ve been putting off in order to concentrate on blogging on various themes as they occur to me in order to be my own man:

Call Emery about access to Franklin Historical Soc.

Call Debbie about granite used in BH PO

Get back to eelgrass PowerPoint

Plot eelgrass, wasting disease, and salinity on one chart

Read Fred’s two papers on wasting disease

Look up tidal dam story in 1965 Ellsworth American

Find source of 100 hanging name tags

Call Mark about granite sculpting talk

Settle on title for Robin’s talk

Meet with Andy and Jonathan about CSF

Write up summer talks for newsletter

It’s these kinds of things that natter at me from inside my head. Once lodged there, they keep making sure I’m paying attention. But not so much attention that I actually do them and check them off. Just enough to unsettle me as if there’s something I ought to be doing. A whole lot of things. By force of will, I suppress them—most of them—most of the time. But they keep coming back, tugging at my pants leg, reminding me they’re still here, still waiting.

The art of cutting granite is to follow the natural stress lines so it breaks neatly into two pieces. If you go against the grain of the rock, it will shatter. So that’s how I work on my to-do list, by paying attention to the tensions between items, figuring where to make the first cut, second, third. Or as today, to write this post first of all and disregard the entire list. So far, so good. But just thinking about the list gives it a toehold, and I can feel my attention draining away, leaving the distractions high and dry in full sunlight. Am I keeping my metaphors straight? See, I’m losing it; I can’t even tell.

Time to take a break.

This is where projects come up as a means of aligning multiple tasks toward a common end. Which is really what I need to be doing—group related tasks together, figure the sequence, and work on one at a time till it all falls in place. Eight items on the above list are related to the summer talk series, so I’ll make a project of that. Which leaves tidal dam story, name tags, and CSF (community supported fisheries). OK, that simplifies things. Thank you, consciousness, for being there when I need you. I think I’ll try a post on projects next, to see if that leads somewhere interesting.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the mega-distractions I think of as big-ticket items because we all pay for them every day of our lives. I’ll leave such issues as overconsumption; poverty; corporate personhood, free speech, and spending; campaign finance reform; gridlock in Washington and greedlock on Wall Street; global warming and the need for clean energy; the flaws inherent in capitalism; U.S. militarism; and bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan—all on my list of things to attend to—but such distractions will have to wait until I can make a project of them on another day.

Granite pavings cut one at a time.


(Copyright © 2009)

The “It” in the title refers to my understanding of my personal consciousness as made up of various processes which I am able to identify through self-reflective experience. In the order they come to mind (not the order in which they kick in), they include:

1. Arousal informs me I am more awake than asleep, definitely not in a stupor or coma.

2. Alertness seems to be an attitude preparing me for paying attention. I sense something’s up—or might be up.

3. Attention is a kind of outreach I direct or extend via my senses—looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, touching, or heeding what my body has to tell me. Attending to comes before consciousness of. That is, expectancy precedes its fulfillment in perception.

4. Expectancy is a kind of pre-viewing or pre-engagement made possible by my point of view at the time as informed by my values, interests, concerns, and feelings. Expectancy is situational in that it arises from what has gone before, in either the immediate or remote past. Memory is clearly involved in projecting the familiar onto the current scene of the now. Expectancy is largely abstract (less detailed than actual perception) and conceptual, that is, derived from a set of earlier perceptions, but lacking the concrete particulars of any one of them.

5. Fulfillment of expectancy (or not, as the case may be) is a flash of recognition by which the object of my attention is identified as that which I was looking for, so that consciousness acquires intentionality in being consciousness of . . . one thing or another. Specific details in the now give substance to the abstract envelope of expectancy as if the two aspects of consciousness—abstract expectation and concrete perception —came together in a fulfilling, mutual engagement.

6. That engagement has a quality of salience representing the degree to which my motivated expectancy (hopes, fears, desires) is being met in the current episode of awareness—at an appropriate level of discernment. Enabling me to make a judgment confirming or disconfirming this is what I was looking for, or had in mind in the first place.

7. The comings together of concepts and percepts lead to a sense of understanding, of my self standing under (supporting) this new instance of consciousness, taking it in, reaffirming my grasp of (or relationship to) the world, conveying a sense of my being of that world, providing a strong sense of affirmation that my grasp is appropriate to my situation.

8. If my expectations are fulfilled in a new or surprising way, then surprise and novelty play roles in consciousness, stretching my understanding in order to accommodate or incorporate an instance I did not anticipate, challenging or perhaps enlarging my understanding. This gives me the option of fulfilling my expectations by habitual application of a tried-and-true response to account for, discredit, or dismiss this unanticipated episode of experience. Or, on the other hand, of opening myself up to new experience in such a way that expands my grasp of the current situation. (Note: This is what I was laboring over in my last post, Reflection 151: Error Signals, that effort prompting me to simplify the matter and place it in context in today’s reflection.)

9. All of which can culminate in new learning, or reaffirmation of my prior understanding. At this stage, clearly, memory is involved. Earlier synaptic connections are affirmed, or perhaps an effort to establish new ones as a basis for improving the effectiveness of my actions in the world is made possible.

10. All leading up to reaffirming or improving my being in the world through planning leading to effective action by equipping me to make myself happen more aptly in light of my circumstances, which is the point of being conscious in the first place.

In the order I present them here, that’s: arousal, alertness, attention, expectancy, fulfillment, salience, understanding, novelty, learning, and action. In addition, I would stress the roles of perception, conception, and memory as major players in consciousness, for a baker’s dozen of topics to whirl in the mind much as jugglers whirl Indian clubs in the air. Any scientist of the mind could probably double or triple that number, but that’s as many as seem particularly relevant to me today in keeping this reflection as straightforward as I can make it.

Consciousness as a Machine, by Rube Goldberg


(Copyright © 2009)

My personal brand of consciousness is the ongoing engagement between me and whatever phenomena serve as objects of my attention. My consciousness belongs to me and no other; it is of something else, what I call images or phenomena. Phenomena are not likenesses or representations of the world so much as they are products of the interaction between my brain and the world. The world I live in—my proprietary world of consciousness—is made up of me as subject and various phenomena as objects of current attention. So right from the start my world appears divided into two realms, subject and object, attender and the attended to, what William James called “the me” and “the not-me.”

Yet I would say that both subject and object are products of one and the same consciousness, so there’s only my view of me and my view of the world, which are not at all the same as myself and the world considered objectively. Objective self and objective world are constructs I build in my mind on the basis of the cumulative experience of phenomena available to me over a lifetime. So I live—as each one of us lives—in a unified world of personal consciousness without borders or divisions—the one and only world of our personal consciousness. That other world, the supposedly “real” or outside world, can only be a matter of inference and fleeting conjecture. Without doubt it is there, but what we can know of it is restricted to what the phenomenal versions in our minds say it is, which is a very intimate kind of hearsay, so not wholly reliable to say the least. James, for instance, says this in his chapter on Attention in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word. (Page 402.)

Unedited by consciousness, the “utter chaos” of the outer world would overwhelm us. So in reducing that world to phenomena, consciousness saves the day.

Every one knows [James goes on] what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. (Page 403-404.)

But phenomena, I would say, are more drastically altered than merely being selected by our faculty of attention seems to suggest. Perception guided by personal interest and selective attention performs a major overhaul and rebuilding job in cutting the world down to a size we can deal with. Nothing about a phenomenon is as it might be in the world. Energy in the visible spectrum is reduced to a restricted palette of colors, wholly dismissing ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, along with X-rays, gamma rays, radio waves, and the many other orders of energetic radiation impinging on us wholly undetected and unappreciated. By the time phenomena emerge in consciousness, the larger portion of energy in the universe has gone missing. What little makes it through our perceptual apparatus to become a phenomenon in the language of consciousness is transmogrified into something other than what it is on its own. The upshot being, in James’ words:

Suffice it meanwhile that each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit. (Page 424.)

Which opens the way for me now to stride up to the mike and make my point. Living in worlds of our own making as we do, we typically direct our attention as if upon the mysterious world itself while, in truth, all we have to go on are the very phenomena we create for our personal use. I mean to suggest in this post—and in my blog as a whole—that a wholly different understanding of the lives we lead results from taking responsibility for our own seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting as represented in personal consciousness in order to, 1) better understand ourselves as makers of our own worlds, and 2) relate more effectively to others who devote their lives to doing exactly the same thing on the basis of their unique take on the world they actually inhabit in personal consciousness.

That is, as long as we give all credit (and blame) to the world for the lives we lead, we are trapped in the illusion that we can know the real world as it is in-and-of itself, when that world is a complete mystery to us. We make better use of our lives, and the lives of those around us, by living life as the great artwork we make of it—the work we are creating for ourselves at this instant in a universe we can only dimly comprehend. The miracle of consciousness—directed at its own foibles and achievements as it is—is that it is wholly self-reflexive. It is turned on itself, not the world. All we have to work with is the phenomena in our own minds. These phenomena are precisely what we should try to grasp in meaningful terms in order to live our lives with as much compassion and understanding as we are able. 

I have gotten to the point where I can say such things with a straight face after confronting my consciousness on a daily basis for thirty years now, and posting ten-months’ findings to this blog. These ideas are not sold in stores or written in books. Trouble is, we are living out ideas formulated by Aristotle and furthered by the church and academia for over 2,000 years. It is next to impossible to question the basic assumptions on which our schooling is founded, the same assumptions suporting the natural attitude by which we gaze on the world and believe we are seeing what is actually there without intervention from any sensory apparatus coming between ourselves and the scene we think of as before us when it is actually in us the whole time.

In the 20th century, behavioral psychologists, wanting to believe we were all automatons controlled by our environments, made an enemy of consciousness and denied it had any influence on behavior. Now cognitive neuroscientists are saying our brains work like computers, and information processing is the key to the mind. Others have viewed the mind as a clockwork, steam engine, hologram—whatever the going metaphor. And generations of students believe what they are currently being told in class, and dedicate their lives to spreading their views, just as theologians spread theirs as higher capital-T Truth accessible solely to prophets and holy men.

The revolution in how we view consciousness is upon us, just as the Reformation in religious thinking was made possible by invention of the printing press that made possible distribution of sacred texts translated into the language people could interpret for themselves without aid from any intervening priesthood. Subsequent invention of paper, pencil, typewriter, and computer continued the advance of informed interpretation of phenomena. Now the Internet has the potential of ushering in a new revolution in the understanding of consciousness itself by enabling people to get their minds together so they can compare experiences without interference from established institutions having to approve the interaction beforehand. In its current stage of development, FaceBook tends to be light and breezy because people are striving to make good impressions instead of using it as a tool for greater understanding of themselves and their friends. Blogosphere, ditto, everyone out to show how insightful their commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries really are. I’m a blogger, I should know.

Except, my whole thrust is to be true to my personal consciousness as one sample of what consciousness can be about. In posting to my blog 142 times, I have come to see that intentionality—the consciousness of objects—can be broken down into consciousness of situations, projects, goals, judgments, problems, priorities, issues, novel experiences, anxieties, interpretations, and so on. These are samples of what makes consciousness sit up and pay attention—what evolution has made us as subjects concerned about in order to act as meaningfully and effectively as we can. Which is no different from what human life is largely about.

It struck me this morning that relationships based on what actually occupies our attention rather than what we claim in order to make a good impression is the way to build compassionate relationships based on truth and reality, not personal mythology.

We don’t need to prove our merit or our worth by buying stuff, impressing others, going to fancy schools, sprinkling certain in-words throughout our conversations—that is, by pretending we are something that, under our clothing and our skins, we inherently are not. Good-by UPS trucks, big box stores, advertising, publicity, investments, banks—all those good things we rely on to create the illusion we are something other than what we are. So much for the economy devoted to shoring up pretense and illusion. So much for politicians pandering to their constituencies on the basis of identities they assume for the sake of making a good impression. The Internet has the potential of bypassing all this superstructure created by so-called civilized institutions. Of enabling people to get together on the basis of the searches they conduct to find out who they are and what they can do in this life—the one life they have to enjoy, or not.

What many cultures have found and we often overlook is that human happiness depends on relating to others in order that we do things together, cooperatively, not in competition. I am not talking altruism here, or self-righteousness. I am talking about me being me and you being you—providing a strong basis for getting together on a workable basis, not using each other to advance our respective unspoken agendas.

There are too many problems in the world to waste time in hot pursuit of illusions. That is what got us where we are today. We need to cut through all that and finally get to the point—which consciousness itself will reveal if we attend to it. Self-reflexive consciousness is not the same thing as staring at your navel. Consciousness, it turns out, is the source of all we can learn in this life and all wisdom. Your navel is just a scar to confirm you got your start inside another person who shared joint responsibility for your conception and birth. Got it. Move on. Inside, not outside. To the font of all experience, our personal consciousness, controlled by personal attention, controlled by personal passions and interests, controlled by the will to live as only we are able—by being fully ourselves. Believe me, consciousness-watching is a learned skill that takes well over ten-thousand hours to get good at. I am not suggesting we quit the race and party; I am suggestion we get down to work appropriate to our gifts.

Let’s agree to attend to life as it is given to us, not to the illusion of life presented to us by others. Let’s make use of our primary asset in living a life—personal consciousness. Accepting that as wholly our doing will tell us who we are, warts and all. Knowing who we are, we can relate on the solid ground of being ourselves without pretending to be anyone else. True learning and discovery await us inside, not outside. Especially not in any institution dedicated to selling illusions for profit. Consciousness is ours to use (or not) in understanding ourselves; the choice is ours. And the same for those around us understanding themselves. Relationships based on shared understanding are the way of the future. In the past we have dedicated ourselves to tearing down the Earth for the sake of fictitious benefits. Now we can build ourselves up to be worthy of the Earth that has provided for us all along.

Two Skiers


(Copyright © 2009)

I’ve posted about consciousness being situational in nature (Reflection 80), about the left-brain interpreter module deciding the meaning of events (Reflection 86), about idioms of consciousness providing ways of being in the world (Reflection 124), and about elixirs of consciousness adjusting “reality” to our way of thinking (Reflection 127). What I’ve not mentioned is where such activities might be seated in the brain, for if they are aspects of consciousness as I claim, that’s where their stories would necessarily begin. It strikes me that these four modes of consciousness have something in common, but I’m not sure what that something might be. This post is about my search to find out. As usual, it points to discovery through coincidence or by accident—and beyond that, to the mind revealing itself in strange ways.

My first step was to consolidate my thoughts on situations, interpreters, idioms, and elixirs in one place to make comparison easier. How to do that? I thought of a matrix laid out with the four aspects of consciousness lined up in columns and possible functional substrates listed in rows down the side. The word matrix stems from the Latin meaning a female animal used for breeding—basically, the female principle in reproductive mode. That’s just what I needed, something to stir my creativity. I listed the functions of each aspect as briefly as I could:

  • Situations—provide the context or framework of consciousness
  • Interpreters—develop meaningful stories or narratives accounting, rightly or wrongly, for awareness
  • Idioms—are ways of being in the world according to one acquired discipline or another
  • Elixirs (fudge factors)—adjust understanding to accord with fundamental beliefs in order to produce a desired effect.

Reading what I had written, I felt a jab of anxiety. What could they possibly have in common? Nothing sprang to mind. So I went on, off the top of my head listing broad functional regions of the brain where facets of consciousness might arise or at least be involved: perception, conception, memory, expectancy, feeling, planning, judging, speaking, acting, and so on. Then I took an hour to break down each of the four aspects in terms of what I knew about different functional areas of the brain. And went to bed. This on the day before my son’s birthday.

For two hours, I lie awake in the dark, wondering what to do. Basically, worrying. It all started so innocently. Days ago, I’d left a message on my son’s answering machine, asking how he’d like to celebrate his birthday. I said Carole and I would be happy to provide a floating meal to be eaten whenever and wherever he chose. If Friday didn’t work, maybe Sunday. Just give me a call. Days rolled by with no response. His birthday is tomorrow. What to do? After installing a bilge pump in my boat, I stop by my son’s workplace. It turns out both his mom and I (long divorced) are pestering him about his birthday. He’s working toward a show on Saturday and feels cornered with no place to hide. So he disappears by not taking calls. Anyway, after encouragement from his wife, my son agrees that Monday is doable. We agree to meet at the boathouse at noon. He’ll see if his brother can come. I call Carole to ask if Monday is OK with her. It is. I will bring turkey loaf, mashed potatoes, and ice cream; she’ll bring asparagus and bake a cake. So it seems settled.

Yet here I am at 2:00 in the morning, worrying how to pull it all together. Catsup. I don’t use it, so don’t have any. Buy catsup. Bring salt and pepper. How keep the turkey loaf and mashers warm while rowing across to the island, the ice cream cold? How many potatoes do I need? What if rains? With the battery for the bilge pump in place, how can I fit two other people in my boat? Where will I brace my feet without jarring the pump? And that’s only for starters. I progress to more serious anxieties, dwelling on times things hadn’t worked out in the past. I spend two hours reviewing my life—marriages, divorces, relationships. And in the back of my mind—the consciousness matrix and what it has to tell me. I run through the four aspects of consciousness, their possible placement in the brain. Everything is problematic—life is problematic. Eventually I get back to sleep.

When I woke up, I saw immediately that the four aspects of consciousness all deal with attention, arousal, and anxiety. They are all ways of putting energy into coping with stress. Situations are situations precisely because their parts are at odds, and so kindle anxiety. Our interpreter modules provide answers to questions that stir anxiety (I recall a write-up of Michael Gazzaniga’s work in which a split-brain patient begins his answer to a question about his interpretation of an experimental situation by saying, “Oh, that’s easy” or something to that effect, which I now see as compensating for anxiety). Idioms of consciousness focus attention on discrete topics, reducing anxiety by narrowing the field of concern. And elixirs of consciousness serve to deal with anxiety more than truth, as students are anxious to fulfill assignments by coming-up with right answers by hook or by crook. Shelley Smithson’s piece in the June 29, 2009 issue of The Nation, “Radioactive Revival in New Mexico,” provides this example of using God as a magic elixir to help things turn out as desired:

[Marita] Noon, . . . a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed “advocate for energy,” says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Consciousness appears to be largely a means of dealing with situations in which doubt, uncertainty, and consequent anxiety predominate. The amygdala is involved in each of the aspects of consciousness I am focusing on, shaping relevant strategies for converting motivating stress into productive behavior. In The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Joseph LeDoux writes:

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning (page 168).

And it is certainly the emotionally meaningful aspects of consciousness we pay special attention to and, thanks to the hippocampus, remember. As I have said, consciousness is given us to solve novel problems, including those in a cultural, not natural, context. I have reached that conclusion the long way round, by using my late-night anxiety as a means of studying anxiety itself. Anxiety about loose ends hanging from my wish to celebrate my son’s birthday kept me awake. So anxiety was an integral part of my mind at the time.

Schools are hotbeds of anxiety. Every test, lesson, and assignment is a source of stress. Even sports fire people up, both players and spectators, all traceable to anxiety. What we learn is not content so much as how to deal with tensions that force us to learn how to proceed through difficult tasks that upset us at the time. Through exposure to various subject disciplines, we learn to cope with related life situations. We acquire the idioms educated people use to surmount their problems. We learn how to do research, how to listen, how to express ourselves, how to solve problems—how to accomplish tasks others assign to us. All based on suffering anxiety and applying techniques that diminish it.

Sitting down to write a post, I am nothing if not anxious. Usually I am anxious in a way shaped as curiosity about an issue I am involved with. But every creative endeavor starts with stage fright of one sort or another. Am I up to the task? Do I have the skill, energy, and desire to work this through? I remember Hector Berlioz writing in his autobiography about dreaming a piece of music in specific detail, but knowing how difficult it would be to ever get it performed, not writing it down. The music came to him in his sleep two nights in a row—then never again, scuttled by anxiety over the trouble it would cause later on.

When dirty dishes pile up in the sink, we become active in a constructive way—or else make ourselves scarce. These are two different ways of dealing with stress, by coping or refusing to cope at all, by fighting or fleeing—as I fled from the lady with the torn jaw and cheek on a street in London 50 years ago (see Reflection 119: Man and Dog). Our amygdalas help us decide which strategy to select. Schooling trains us to face into challenges directly. When we tire of that, we go to the movies—the funnier, the sexier and more violent, the better to distract us from our worries. We can learn from the emotional fixes we get into, or maybe get high or drunk. We can deal, or try to escape.

I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on Fresh Air this week. His view is that life consists of one anxiety-producing situation after another. Each of his films deals with a different episode of the human condition as he sees it:

TERRY GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on, why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

Woody Allen is a good example of someone who reduces anxiety by immersing himself in his work—adopting a way of being in the world, an idiom, that he has the drive and skill to maintain while working on exactly the same types of problems that he finds so overwhelming:

WOODY ALLEN: [M]aking a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in the real world of human existence.

Working our way through anxiety-producing situations may be the essence of life if it teaches us how to accurately diagnose situations, train our interpretive facilities to identify what’s really going on, adopt idioms giving us mastery over a small slice of life, or develop cons and scams for beating the system one way or another. Consciousness offers us a range of such powerful survival techniques to apply in particular cases. Members of congress try most of them—inevitably disillusioning their constituents by the deviousness of their means for maintaining their public image while abusing the power of their office. But there are no good guys—or gals—it turns out, only those with a will to live and thrive. In the big leagues, innocents, idealists, and dreamers get eaten alive. No one is larger than life, for life is run by consciousness, and that as everyone knows can get pretty seamy.

Am I more jaded than the next person? Naive, perhaps, but not jaded. I haven’t given up on humanity just yet, thought I have my doubts. I still believe consciousness is worth studying, but it sometimes takes a strong stomach. I figure that if our record is ever to improve, we are going to have to come to terms with ourselves. Evidence points to the fact that we are selfish bastards always seeking to advance our personal cause at others’ expense. More likely, we are doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to figure out what is going on in and around ourselves. In truth, I think we are half  babes in the woods, half hungry wolves—innocence and cunning wrapped in the same fleece.

Besides anxiety signaled by the amygdala, other neural-based features shared by situations, interpreter modules, and both idioms and elixirs of consciousness include: a strong sense of cohesion through time, expectancy, reliance on sensory feedback, executive judgment and decision-making, motor planning, and execution of specific behaviors. Thus the amygdala relays messages to several higher areas of cerebral cortex, which ultimately shape and execute behavior, and look to subsequent feedback from appropriate sensory areas. This is an extremely rough sketch, but to me the keystone of this activity is the potential danger or opportunity available to the conscious organism as signaled by the amygdala. The follow-up details appear to be a function of individual judgment and decision-making based on learning, prior experience, and current expectations.

Consciousness, it seems to me then, is not based on prowess and ego so much as on stress and anxiety. If that is true, it would appear to be one of our best defenders within cultural situations which natural evolution could never anticipate. In rising to consciousness, each of us is on her own, doing the best she can to cope with situations that might well undo her. Going solo, we have a great many options for dealing with such situations. Diagnosing more-or-less accurately what’s going on in a given situation is one of them. Interpreting ever-changing relationships in meaningful terms is another. Adopting the idiom and special expertise of one favored discipline is a third. And applying magic elixirs or fudge factors in order to view situations in terms of a predetermined ideology no matter what is a fourth option among others I have not considered in this post.

In dealing with personal fear and anxiety, evolution hands the choice to consciousness—namely us. Whether we deal on the basis of greed, faith, evidence, prejudice, or aesthetics is up to each of us personally. In selecting the choice we prefer, we reveal who we are. The scary part is realizing that how we choose determines the wiring of our brains by strengthening the synapses involved. We become the creatures of our prior choices. Which is why growing up is so hard—think of the child soldiers of Africa. “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for those who make the best choices under the circumstances being more apt to make it than those who select poor choices for whatever reason. Life requires endlessly dealing with anxiety as evolution intended. If we flub-dub around, we are apt to be dead.




(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.