(Copyright © 2010)

I am ever the hero of my own little drama as I act it out in my head. It can’t be otherwise because I am the author and sole interpreter of the script as it is revealed to me (that is, as I make it up minute by minute). My life is a performance of my story, first concocted in my head, then performed on the virtual (from my point of view) stage of the unknowable world. Picture me behind the door of my mind—the one with the star—posing in my dressing gown before a full-length mirror, mouthing the words I am rehearsing for the grand performance I’m to give in a few moments. If you were lucky, you’d be in the audience. Too bad you can’t make the show because you are rehearsing your own performance before your own full-length mirror in a different dressing room, also with a star on the door.

We are heroes to ourselves because we can do no wrong. Even when we commit stupid or cruel acts, we are automatically off the hook because, no matter how others see us, we appear blameless to ourselves. Self-interest is our only motive, so by definition we have to be right because we can always justify what we do. It is they, those others, who are at fault—they just don’t understand.

Each a hero in her own eyes; what a wonderful system. Perfection itself on two legs, facing the world, looking about for yet more heroic labors worthy of our talents and strengths. Whatever feats others may perform, we can do better. Why waste time pretending to be modest if in all honesty we’re the greatest? I mean, what-is-the-point? Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If corporations ever got on to the power of categorization so they were able to set the terms in which we all see the world, there’d be hell to pay.

If we manage to do no harm by living our span to the fullest, then a self-assertive life such as I have described in those first three paragraphs amounts to a comedy. But despite our good intentions, we are never as innocent as we claim. Others do without basic necessities so that we may live higher on the hog than they can imagine. Eyes straight ahead, we are only dimly aware of the ruin in our wake. With an automobile, I have killed pheasants, dogs, cats, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, dragonflies, and thousands of others. I have been trained as a killer by the U.S. Army; I don’t doubt that my training was successful on occasion, even well after the fact. But there I go again, blaming my training, while the true killer is the self that I am whose hungers demand to be fed.

Our myopic perspectives and insatiable appetites render life more tragic than comic. Think of the innocents slaughtered in our name (beef cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and thousands of plants, many of which bear genes similar to our own). We live at far greater expense than we know or choose to bother ourselves about.

All because we categorize and sort the world for personal gain as we imagine it, without consulting others in advance. Selfish and glib, that’s what we are. I know, I am one who has shaped the world to his advantage as long as he can remember. Not deliberately or knowingly, perhaps, but effectively that is how I have lived my life. Following my nose, which means following the dictates of self-interest and personal advantage. The difference between me following my nose and Bernie Madoff following his is he’s in prison and I’m not. Or if I am in fact behind bars, those bars are the steely cage around my consciousness, armoring the very wits by which I survive.

I use such imagery to describe the categorizing aspect of consciousness because we cannot avoid casting our most self-serving concepts upon sensory patterns representing what we can know of the world. With the exception of messages from great corporations, those phenomenal patterns do not come to us presorted and pre-categorized; it is we who bend them to our purposes by seeing them from our unique points of view as recorded in our personal histories of concept formation, cleaned and gutted of telling details, hollowed-out for general utility later on, leaving only husks, not the essence. Categorization—recognizing the “true” nature of things—is not an impartial act; we are invested in what uses we can make of a thing for our personal advancement, so bestow categories on it that will serve us well later on. A spade is not just a spade nor a rose simply a rose; in each case they are functionally what we make them out to be. A spade can kill, a rose ingratiate us with others who will owe future favors.

Machiavelli didn’t come out of the blue; he was the product of his own urge to survive. So, too, de Sade. And Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, who wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” I say all survival is based on deception, particularly of the self. To us, our miscategorizations always appear fair and just. The self is in full command of its resources and does not submit to casual scrutiny. You have to infer its self-deceptions from its actual deeds. That makes it all the easier to confound its dictates with truth or reality, subject of my last post (Reflection 197: Backing Off).

Our entire neural apparatus intercedes between the self and its grasp of the world. Our senses don’t deliver the world-as-it-is to our doorstep, they bring us images transduced and reformulated by our sensory system—the world being at least once removed as translated into the neural language of action potentials and flowing neurotransmitters. Which memory scans for familiar patterns in order to categorize what we hear (see, touch, taste, smell) in terms of concepts made meaningful by prior experience. At every step of our life journey we reinvent ourselves and the situation we’re faced with based on patterns we’ve encountered before and the concepts we’ve derived from them. The world as-it-is-in-itself never enters our minds.

No matter how subtle, most categorizations are heroic distortions for personal gain in being consistent with biological values inherent in the self—namely you and me. Our meanings lie ready, waiting to seize on familiar neural signals. The perceptual side of consciousness is concerned with sensory patterns and relationships, and so is more cordial in being ruled by curiosity about, and interest in, what’s out there than by survival at any cost. Categorization answers questions raised by curiosity about the world, but personal aesthetics first decide what’s relevant and what isn’t. I don’t mean aesthetics focused solely on beauty; I mean picking up on sensory patterns and relationships apart from any meaning they may have for us. That is, sensory signals as not yet—but soon to be—recognized and categorized. Such as the tonal makeup and rhythms of a familiar voice or piece of music; the shape, size, color, and motion of a familiar bird; the feel of our fingers wrapping around the steering wheel of our family car; the scent of Spanish rice as Mother used to make it.

The mapping of categories onto sensory patterns, and vice versa, are two of the major achievements of consciousness. Experience and awareness meet in constituting a current moment of engagement with our world. The salience or relevance of the signal can be in attention or memory, but categorizing a sensory episode as a meaningful experience is our doing in either case. We are fulfilled in being simultaneous pattern detectors and categorizers in that moment. When our personal histories coincide with the sensory now, we are on familiar ground and know our options for making an appropriate response to the situation we’re in. The past claims the now, moving our heroic-aesthetic self one notch toward the future.

We are so quick to draw categories from our quiver, we come to think sensory patterns come to us with meanings attached to them, as if they were meaningful in and of themselves. But even if we are in our everyday mode of categorization, we are the ones responsible for bringing sensory inputs and conceptual meanings together. The meaning isn’t in the music or the image, it is in us. Always in us. If the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pour out of the radio and there’s no one to hear it, then the sounds go unrecognized, and the radio may be turned on, but Beethoven’s Fifth is not playing. If the sensory-pattern recognizer and categorizer is absent, then for all practical purposes the moment is lost. Think of a car skidding off the road, hitting a tree, killing the driver, with the radio playing relentlessly to his unhearing ears and lifeless body. Is the radio still playing? To one discovering the scene, perhaps, but not to the late driver.

Categorization takes time—on the order of a few tenths of a second. It is possible to live in the gap between pattern reception and the act of recognition that fits it to a category. We can prolong that gap as long as we please by focusing solely on sensory patterns and their internal relationships, dispensing with conceptual meanings as irrelevant—as we often do in listening to music without words, scanning the surface of a painting, savoring scents on a damp day in fall, and walking in woods or along the shore—giving ourselves to our surroundings instead of claiming to know them in advance.

As a photographer for the Information Service at Iowa State University in 1960, I used to photograph boxing matches and basketball games, giving my total attention to the action in the ring or under the basket. I was so engaged in my personal zone, I lived to anticipate what was about to happen because if I waited to find out, it was too late to click the shutter. Peering at the scene through the viewfinder of my camera, living in that space, when the match or game was over, I had to ask to find out who’d won.

Yes, sounds dumb, and it was because I had no use for speech and meaning. Just as when I visit galleries and avoid reading what the artist says about a painting or photograph, or even the label of what I am looking at. I don’t want titles or grand ideas, I want the visual experience, which the title or blurb takes away from me so that I know about the image without experiencing it for myself. In such a case, words are not the issue. They are someone else’s categorizations, and I have no interest in them. Later, perhaps, but not now. Not till I’ve pushed the experience as far as I can take it, exploring the image, noting the colors and their relationships, textures, shapes, angles, brushstrokes, making the image live in me so that I have a personal acquaintance with it. That way, I still see the world through my own eyes. Maybe later, I’ll bother to read what someone else has to say about it.

I still recall being disappointed when I led a group of eleventh graders on an excursion through woods where I wanted them to learn about their natural surroundings by touch, smell, sound—any way but sight (see Reflection 149: Blind Walk). Pairing up, one partner was to assure the safety of the other who, blindfolded, explored her surroundings by hand, ear, and nose. But despite my instructions, everyone made a guessing game of the exercise, the presumed object being to shout out the name of each object encountered. For them, the name said it all; sensory experience was beside the point. Which, I realized sadly, was the result of the schooling we run our children through in making them dutiful inductees into our culture. The label—the right answer—is of the essence; personal experience is not part of the curriculum. I was trying to awaken my students to sensory details they could use to enliven their writing, but had to work harder than I planned to get that message across.

Listening to music without words is one of the best ways I know of to experience the pre-categorical, sensory aspect of consciousness. Jazz and classical music work equally well; ballads less well because the words steal the show. The trick is to give yourself to the notes themselves as they rise and fall in time, noticing their duration, their tonal relationships, the quality of the different notes, the interacting voices of the instruments, echoes and repetitions, larger or smaller leaps than you expect, comparing where you think the music is going to where it actually leads, and so on. That way, you make each piece your own because you have lived inside it in your own consciousness, not merely followed along at a distance.

Abstract painting is a great medium for exploring visual relationships between different shapes, hues, values, textures,  sizes, and orientations of patches of color. It is such Thank you, Franz Klinerelationships that turn different patches into patterns of visual stimulation, elevating discrete sensory differences into an overall design which holds together because its internal workings add to something larger than themselves. Faced with an abstract by Franz Kline, for instance, seen from the right distance, the eye never stops ricocheting around the surface, darting to every corner in search of the next salient feature, knitting the parts into a stimulating and satisfying whole. Don’t take my word for it, words are irrelevant. Just give of yourself in free exploration and see what you find.

If we don’t explore sensory patterns before we categorize them as this or that, we may lose the opportunity because habit is apt to take over and short-circuit fresh perception altogether. I have mentioned in an earlier post the distinguished historian of science who put a print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk—and never saw it again. We have to make a deliberate effort to notice sensory patterns when we have the chance, or they may well disappear as so much cultural wallpaper. I remember staying home from school as a kid because I was sick, and getting so tired of hearing the same old chestnuts favored by radio stations in Syracuse—in those days The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rhapsody in Blue—that I still associate them with canned chicken soup and ginger ale. Try to really listen to Ravel’s Bolero and see how long you last.

No frill to me, aesthetics is the high art of noticing. Of really paying attention to sensory details wherever I find them. Of giving myself to life in order that life will give itself to me. When I don’t make the effort, life glides right past me like so many telephone poles by the side of the road. This is what I mean by “being there,” putting my values where my body is so that I engage what is truly going on from my personal perspective. Sensory exploration is essential to getting the most out of life instead of glossing it prematurely with a dismissive categorization. Seen one, seen ‘em all. No, each individual being or event is unique in the world, and must be experienced to be appreciated. If we are bored with life, we are bored with ourselves for not taking the initiative to first give of ourselves to our surroundings in order to elicit their response.

At the dentist’s office in Bangor yesterday, I read in Time Magazine the news that great things were coming to the so-called third world in the form of first-world TV shows finally getting the global audience they so richly deserve. I put the magazine down and though about the benefits of pre-packaged experiences going by so fast that they amount to missed opportunities for doing something personally significant on the local scene. 

Mass media are the enemy of human consciousness because they are meant to overwhelm us, not engage us. We can’t ask questions or say how we feel. Try writing a letter to Time or Newsweek about their opinionated coverage of world events and you’ll get back a form letter much like the one you get from your Representative or Senator saying how much your letters mean to them. As if words and categorizations were reality itself. In truth, the corporate mass media are dumbing down the world, separating persons from their individual opportunities to have local experiences.

It’s not that, as the voice of corporate America, the media pre-package experience so much as that they pre-digest it for us, too, so there’s nothing else for us to do but sit and watch flat screens the evening through after working all day in a cubicle watching other flat screens. We should be out raising flowers and vegetables; watching birds, spiders, and insects; milking cows; hiking or swimming in the wilds with our kids; using our minds to make something of ourselves instead of letting the corporate media remake us to suit their agendas. For-profit corporate personhood is an assault on the Earth and all forms of life. Corporations are not alive, and know nothing about living beings. Their sole purpose is to make money for their owners, which they do at the expense of not only their owners themselves, but of all living beings.

Heroic conceptual categorizations laid on us by corporations doing our thinking for us, coupled to lazy sensory-pattern detection on our part, is leading us all down the primrose path to global catastrophe. The solution is to reclaim personhood for those who are still individuals among us, destroying the very idea of mass media in the process. The only media that work are intended for individuals, not the masses. We will never do better than face-to-face conversations, personal letters, or phone conversations. That way, we reserve categorization to ourselves as called forth by the aesthetic patterns we discover in daily experience. Once we forget how to do that, the end is not only near, it is behind us, leaving nobody to listen as the pretty music plays on.

Squash blossom soon to unfurl

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Reflection 165: Being There

December 17, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

At a meeting last Saturday, I divided so-called environ-mentalists into two classes: experiential and conceptual. Conceptual environmentalists know about the environment second-hand through symbolic communications (slogans, articles, e-mails, books, pictures, films, etc.), while experiential environmentalists know the environment up-close and personally through first-hand engagement. Members of the first class are environmentalists of the mind; those of the second are environmentalists of the body and its senses.

To illustrate the difference, I mentioned a presentation I once attended at a gathering of Native American environmental leaders, the show consisting largely of videos featuring talking heads speaking about the environment (with a lit candle off to the side symbolizing an attitude of reverence), the audience being Native Americans from around the U.S. who, as one woman put it, “learned all that by being outdoors on the reservation with my grandparents when I was five.”

After I had drawn the distinction between two kinds of environmentalists, the chair of the meeting glossed my remarks by saying I was talking about the issue of environmental justice, and moved on. Leaving me thinking to myself that injustice might be part of what I meant, but there was a more positive side of learning about nature through personal immersion in it—a kind of baptism or dedication to the natural world through direct exploration—leading to environmental involvement springing from the inside not the outside, driven by intuition not intellection. I was thinking particularly of the Penobscot Indians living on what we now call Indian Island in the middle of their namesake river. Penobscots are born environmentalists because their food, baskets, drumheads and drumsticks, for example, all come from nature. A Navajo greeting the dawn by sprinkling pollen into the air is celebrating solar energy in an experiential manner.

Recently, before a different audience, I had a chance to clarify what I meant. In receiving from the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment an award for “individual commitment to volunteer programs dedicated to environmental protection and sustainability of natural resources within . . . the Gulf of Maine,” I said I was moved by a very simple philosophy, “to put my body where my values are.” I held up a recent copy of the Christian Science Monitor showing cityscapes of four American cities—Houston, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston—under the banner, “The Next Boomtowns.” “Stacked in those skyscrapers,” I said, “are rows of cubicles lit by fluorescent lights with people sitting before computer screens, learning about the world second-hand through ideas relayed by people they have never met.”

That scares the pants off me because all those people in those towers believe they live in an economy, not the natural world, and can solve problems by throwing money at them—as our government has thrown money at Wall Street to get it running again. Money may be the currency we think we run on, but it is of no value to the native ecosystems that truly support us.

Conceptual environmentalists think money and techno-fixes are sufficient to solve the problem of global warming; experiential environmentalists know it will take far more than that—a radical change in human sensitivity and behavior to bring us in line with the biological processes that sustain us.

I developed my environmental philosophy by living for two-and-a-half years on a 30-acre island on the Maine coast, keeping my eyes and ears open and mouth shut. Living in the middle of an estuary as I did, it was a total immersion experi-ence. Late in life, perhaps (I was 53), but I was suffocating in the workaday world and needed a large dose of fresh air. Without inhaling nature as I did, I doubt I would be here today writing this blog. I never expected to live past Y2K.

But here I am 24 years later, a living, breathing environmental-ist because I put my body where my values were in 1986, and have made myself happen naturally, inside-out, ever since. My secret is to embrace life directly with as few intermediaries as possible standing between me and the natural world. I buy no packaged foods but cook every meal from scratch using fresh, wholesome ingredients. I drink water, but no alcohol, coffee, cocoa, tea, or soda; take no drugs; walk instead of drive when I can; and dedicate my life to living with nature instead of on top of it. My favorite recreation is rowing my boat, a peapod made by Eric Dow in 1986. I forsook television when I lived on the island, and haven’t missed it since. Which makes it easier to resist temptations others wave in front of me in trying to shift whatever wealth I might have to their pockets. I am incapable of serving as just another cog in the workings of the American economy, refusing to be categorized as a consumer as if I were anything less than fully human, a child of planet Earth.

And being human, I am intrigued by the biological workings of my own mind—the only mind I know inside-out in intimate detail. Finding it hard to get to know or speak with others whose minds are lodged in different heads and live different lives from my own, I began searching for ways to bridge the seeming gulf between us. Which is right down my alley in wanting to get to know them as I know myself—creatures of two long and distinguished heritages, both evolutionary and cultural. Which is why I am carrying on at such length about the successes and failures of consciousness.

I see now that we live in different worlds, all focused on ourselves, surrounded by those who share values similar to ours and speak languages we can more-or-less understand in relating our experiences, so to some extent reaffirming our inner lives. It is bridging between those personal subcultures that now excites me, reaching across the chasm from both directions at once, from opposite shores—much as the Penobscot Narrows Bridge was built between Prospect and Verona Island—making it possible for us to connect midway between our respective inner worlds, to mutually reach out and engage without danger of plunging into the interpersonal chasm that separates us.

My most recent post (Reflection 163: No Middle Ground) was about the dangers of oversimplifying experience in order to be clearheaded in taking decisive action. Clarity, that is, comes at the high cost of minimizing rival alternatives. Which is the greatest danger in getting to know one another—that we reduce the other to a caricature of the complex and dynamic being she knows herself to be. Or, to be safe, we expose only a morsel of our full humanity. Relationships based on simplistic thinking can endure (think of your many casual acquaintances), but they are more serviceable than satisfying. You don’t need to befriend the checkout clerk to buy a jar of mayonnaise; being mildly pleasant or neutral will get the job done. It is in going deeper than “pleasant” that takes insight, sympathy, skill, and determination.

So here I am, the ardent environmentalist looking to connect with others who are ardent in their own lives, yet inhabit social circles emphasizing other ways of relating. Object: 1) greater understanding of what it means to be human, 2) expanded consciousness, and 3) more effective action in a world that includes us both. If we are ever going to cope effectively with overpopulation, global warming, cultural strife, human cruelty, and an economy that degrades the Earth, we need to build a network of such bridges, allowing us to fully mobilize and synchronize our personal resources toward common ends such as these.

The first step is to put our bodies where our survival values are—on planet Earth, not in some standardized cubicle deep within the economy. That is, we have to put ourselves where we truly live, not where we are told to live. Being in a place where we are fully conscious enables us to reach out to others who are as firmly grounded as we are, and to others beyond them. Contacting those others in mutual engagement, we then form a network of humanity—a new kind of tribe—worthy of meeting the challenges facing us all such as those I mentioned earlier. Apart and alone—as consumers, say, or members of different cultural tribes—we have absolutely no chance of saving either Earth or ourselves.

Being there is the secret of survival, being there where we live—no place else than on our host and irreplaceable satellite as it rounds the sun, the one inhabited planet we know of anywhere in the universe.

Next Boomtowns

 

Reflection 22: Relationships

November 12, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

On a hike I made on August 16, 1996, I got into relationships. That is, relationships got into me. I met eight groups of hikers along the loop I made on Western Mountain in Acadia National Park. All but one were carrying on lively conversations. The silent exception was a man carrying a toddler papoose-style on his back. The rest were all talking, talking, their tongues working as hard as their legs. I heard them coming along the trail, I heard them going.

 

What is the difference between hiking in a group and hiking solo? I asked that question then, and—after writing Reflection 21 about each of our consciousnesses going it alone—I ask it more generally today. What is the difference between being alone and being in relationship with another who is also going it alone? How can two atoms in the universe link up and share a higher order of consciousness which transcends their isolation? This is how I eased into that topic in 1996:

 

Unique events and singularities are almost beyond comprehension. There is nothing we can compare them to. We think in terms of classes of things, categories, repeatable events. A class of one is no class at all. It is something waiting to be grouped with something else—to be made plural, coupled, included as part of a whole. Nothing exists by itself. Relationship is all. All is relationship. Plato labored over the problem of the one and the many, the difference between one thing and more than one. Here is a thing all by itself; it is what it is. Put it with another thing, it becomes party to a relationship, which is something else again. No longer an independent whole by itself, its nature now depends on its connectedness to something beyond itself. Man and wife. Mother and child. Teacher and student. Labor and management.

 

When singular items become joined, there is a tradeoff from a state of differentiation to one of integration. From being alone to being together. Specific detail is sacrificed for a more general state of unity. When two individuals become linked in their minds as a couple, they exist in a wholly different space than they occupied previously. They may look much the same, talk the same, walk the same, but they do so in companionship with another looker, talker, walker. And this change is not just a matter of appearances. Both parties are changed on the inside so that they actually look upon their respective worlds in new ways. Their consciousness becomes energized, their hormones surge, their identities expand to include another being as an essential part of themselves. In writing up my hike twelve years ago, I said:

 

In school we learn that 1 + 1 = 2, but that simple formula speaks a mystery the greatest minds do not understand. There is a distance and a tension between individual things that must be included in the notion of plurality. A couple exists in relationship. The relationship is what makes it a couple. Yet the relationship is not part of either one by itself. It is something else. The mystical plus sign is everything. That is where the magic is hidden.

Language, love, and beauty live in the plus sign, the space between partners in relationship, and between pluralities. The plus sign makes room for science, religion, government, and art, which are not disciplines in themselves so much as systems of relationship within society. The plus sign gives ideas a place to grow.

 

Not only ideas but babies, families, communities, tribes, and nations grow in that plus sign. Clearly, we have evolved as a species to join together in common purpose with others we invite to share our personal space. As hydrogen ions are born to share their being with other ions to form atoms and molecules, we are born with not just a potential but a proclivity for interacting with others who are born with a complementary drive.

 

In partnering, we fulfill—not the other—but ourselves. Both the urge and the satisfaction to which it leads are parts of our personal makeup. That way we preserve our integrity. Our plus sign fulfills itself. If we give from the heart, in the very same act we are expanded in kind. Which sounds like New Age gibberish, but is how the social dimension of consciousness works. We may feel good about having found our partner, but, too, we approve of ourselves in the relationship we have established. We are fully ourselves the whole time. That way, we do not give ourselves away, and so do not feel diminished. As I wrote in my trail book:

 

The wonder of hiking with a companion is that both people can enrich their relationship by being together in similar landscapes at the same time. Letting the landscape be the plus sign that unites them, couples can grow in new ways in new places, sharing new experiences, letting their relationship grow beyond what it was before they set out. One of the secrets of sustaining a relationship is to let it grow in new ways. This takes trust that the new ways will not threaten what has been attained, but will add new dimensions to it. . . .

          For people hiking in groups, being there is the secret. Being together in relationship as who they are, where they are. Not as who they were somewhere else; who they are, together, here, right now. One of the plus signs, the elements of relationship, is the location where the relationship comes into being. Relationships don’t exist in a vacuum; they are situated where the participants are as they relate to one another. The setting is part of the relationship. Not in an incidental way, but fundamentally and substantially. Location shapes what happens, becoming part of events as each participant and witness experiences them.

 

Events express the landscapes where they enter into consciousness. People become aware of their surroundings and what I now call their situations, so becoming partners with trees, plants, birds, water, sky, and other natural elements. The “where” is more than just a place on a map, it is a place to be and to live—a habitat. An address in the universe where people can reach out and be touched. The very situations that shape our personal consciousness at particular moments—those same circumstances suggest ways of being together with others in similar situations.

 

Though our particular edition of consciousness is ours alone (see Reflection 21), we need not feel locked in solitary confinement. The way out is also included in that same consciousness. We discover such openings once we take responsibility for being who we are as individuals and become comfortable with that individuality as our greatest asset. Then the way to offer ourselves in partnership with others opens before us, as the road to the Emerald City opened before Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. We gather courage, heart, and intelligence together—and off we go.

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