(Copyright © 2009)

 

Stop in your tracks and watch those around you striding purposefully about their business. It always amazes me how driven we have become, how earnestly we push on without glancing right or left. We drive the kids to school, to violin practice, to soccer, to ballet, to rehearsals. And then pick them up and drive home. Busyness is our business, the exact opposite of the broad margin Thoreau sought around his life.

 

Having read most of his writings, including the Journals, I have long admired Thoreau for the evident integrity backing up every word. Whatever he did, he did wholeheartedly, his own way. Uniqueness and integrity go together because no two of us are the same. But being busy cuts through our uniqueness, as if routines were more important than personal passions and judgments. What would happen if we stopped and smelled the flowers along the way? We’d be late, and everybody knows it is a sin to be late. Bosses know it, teachers know it, sergeants know it, theatergoers know it, entire corporate hierarchies know it. Lateness can lower your grade, your pay, your IQ, and probably your sex drive.

 

Adopting cultural mores and routines means you have donated part of your brain to your culture for the sake of being accepted. That’s a tough bargain because you are no longer fully yourself. You’ve become a political animal, living part of your life for the effect it might have on others. Wanting to please is one thing, doing it for personal gain is another. Selling your personal integrity is a form of prostitution (from Latin prostituere, expose publically, offer for sale). In our culture, it is an obvious good to watch TV, invest, buy, patronize advisers, consume, and generally go along with the crowd. How do we know? Because that’s the gist of many of the messages beamed at us in modern life.

 

But to take a stand against the onslaught takes integrity—being whole, entire, intact, untouched, or undamaged. Thoreau had that quality, as did Emerson and Walt Whitman. They were their own men, out to be true, not to please. Giving them the biting edge of independent thought, a quality shared with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to name but three exemplars from each sex.

 

The competitiveness of our culture is meant to fracture the integrity of those who oppose it. Backed by wealth and the power of law, corporations will do their best to beat you into a pose of submission, to have you bend at the knees, throw up your hands and cry, “Enough, I’ll go along!” Dominance is claimed to be a synonym for masculinity, submission for femininity—obvious myths in a world requiring both men and women to be strong to survive. But for political and commercial purposes, the claim has a certain weight among those who please by doing what they’re told.

 

For myself, I believe the function of consciousness is to teach us integrity so that whether male or female, we can be wholly ourselves. In the Mind page at the head of this blog, I list various aspects of consciousness that might bear in varying combinations upon any given situation in awareness. These include: attention, feelings, various kinds of memories, motivation, sensory and bodily phenomena, understanding, imagination, intuition, judgment, planning, expectancy, and action (including language).

 

Integrity, to me, means these various aspects complement one another in contributing to any given episode of personal consciousness. They add to a whole greater than their individual shares taken separately. When we get it together, it feels good because it’s all of a piece. When our minds are at sixes and sevens, we know what that feels like—we can’t concentrate on action because we aren’t ready yet to decide what to do. But when the parts work in synchrony with one another, we are ready to make our move without hesitation.

 

Integrity is a sign that the famous binding problem has been solved in a given instance of consciousness. The problem “arises from the brain’s architecture, in which the outside world is represented by nervous activity in a hundred or more distinct regions” (Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness, p. 167). Yet consciousness creates the illusion that the mind is of one piece. Which is what integrity feels like.

 

My finest moments are those in which I am of one mind—not because my thought is so simple—but precisely because it is hard-won from so many sources yet presents itself as a self-made unity. Perhaps contributions from various brain assemblies are in synchrony with one another, which is what it feels like to me. Everything adds up without argument or discord, freeing my actions to be skillful, passionate, and wholehearted. I have served on a great many committees, so I know what it feels like to rub different parts smooth in order to come up with a compromise, always with a feeling of “it’s the best we can do.”

 

Today, a colleague sent an e-mail concerning the possibility of minds meeting in agreement when coming from different perspectives, I sent back this response:

 

Regarding two minds getting together. I agree with you, part way, but come up against the roadblock of personal integrity. I feel I am finally in a situation where much of my consciousness works cooperatively so that I feel wholly integrated as I write. I treasure that feeling because it has been so rare in my life. I threw out my TV in 1986 because it was such a distraction. I defend my turf, now living practically as a hermit (except for weekends). Now that I’ve got myself more or less together, I don’t want to give that up. It is exciting to think of meeting someone concerned with the same issues on the same level—but daunting, too. At least my mistakes are my own. My belief [is] that one life contains all the stimulation required in order to do good work and make a contribution. Am I wrong? Probably. But it feels great doing what I can with what I have. Still, I’m willing to consider—if not fully explore—the options. What happens if my well runs dry? That’s when I’d need help. So far, it hasn’t happened. In the meantime, I pick and choose in the light of my personal judgment. So keep writing and being your own person. Integrity, once achieved, is a priceless possession.

 

Yes, dialogue is possible between persons of integrity. I find it a waste of time between those whose opinions are threatened by dissent because they aren’t fully supported by every aspect of consciousness. That to me seems to be the state in which most of us conduct our everyday affairs. We generally wing it, doing the best we can under the circumstances, often unfavorable.

 

Which is why we play so many games. Governed by rules, they impose integrity upon us from the outside, and by simplifying the number of options we have in making legal moves. If we cheat, it’s too much like work to be fun anymore.

 

Society places so many pressures upon us to do this and do that, it’s a wonder we ever find quiet time for getting ourselves together. I know women who write poetry at the kitchen table during the fifteen minutes the kids take their afternoon nap. Every four days that adds to an hour of integrity, twenty-four hours of integrity every 96 days—almost four days of integrity a year. That kind of serial project may be the best we can manage during our working, childrearing years. In the interests of full disclosure, I am technically retired, but I’ve never been busier in my life. The difference is I do what I choose to do, not what I am assigned. The tradeoff is I’m not always informed about many of the things that other people talk about and seem to take seriously.

 

The juncture (we now say interface) between people of integrity is always the hard part. What good is integrity if you keep it to yourself? Which is the situation my colleague was asking about in his e-mail. Can integrities be shared so they add to more than the sum of their parts? I gotta believe. When we all achieve integrity in our consciousness, then we will act on the best advice obtainable internally and socially, and the world is bound to be a better place.

 

For now, I offer integrity as something to strive for. After that, we’ll have the dialogue that will save the world. Hopefully, some are having that discussion already, so we’re not as far behind as the nightly news would suggest.

 

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Reflection 51: Memories

January 19, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Ten years ago I bought a hair drier to get the moisture out of a headlight that had been nicked by flying gravel so I could seal it and get my car through its annual inspection. I have hardly used it since, never think of it, yet know exactly what shelf it’s on buried between the sheets and towels in my bathroom closet. What a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. I know the pedigree of that drier, why I bought it, what I did with it, where it is now—even though it doesn’t play even a bit part in my daily activities.

 

Too, I have a pencil sharpener screwed to the end of a bookshelf in my living room. An old one. Full of shavings from every pencil I’ve used for fifteen years. It’s in full view and I must walk by it twenty or thirty times a day—without seeing it. Until I want to sharpen a pencil. Then I know right where it is. Here, too, is a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. In plain sight, yet unseen until need arises, when it materializes right where it was last time.

 

I seem to possess a utilitarian memory that files the function, location, and pertinent history of these items in such a way to be readily retrievable on cue. No emotion is involved; this type of memory is purely functional. It covers the books on my shelves, tools, kitchenware, linens, and other items of practical, if infrequent, use. I include the Leatherman Tool in its sheath on my belt in this category. I seldom see it, yet reach for it when it would be useful, and there it is, right where I expect it to be. What time is it? I look not to my wrist but to the watch hanging from its caribiner on my belt. I know where I bought it, why I bought it (I don’t like the feel of straps around my wrist), where I’ve gotten its batteries replaced, that sometimes the stem unseats itself, and so on. All that is retained in my utilitarian memory, as if I were conscious of it all the time, which I’m not. Until needed, I never think of my watch.

 

Paperwork is different. I generate lots of it every day, and unless I deliberately file it away where I can retrieve it, I have great difficulty knowing which pile or piles I should look in. I seem to have no memory for paperwork—where it is, why I wrote it, even what it’s about. The process of writing down what’s on my mind is everything; once done, it simply disappears from my consciousness as if it went up in smoke. That’s true even of my posts to this blog. If I didn’t make a list of them, I would have no memory of what I said. I may have a vague recollection of dealing with that topic sometime, somewhere, but that’s about it. My utilitarian memory doesn’t do paperwork.

 

Yet it is somewhere within me. I keep having the same thoughts I had twenty or forty years ago—as if they were wholly new discoveries. Or I come across something I wrote long ago and find it accurately expresses something I thought I hit upon yesterday. It’s lodged in my unconscious mind in amorphous form, but not neatly placed or categorized.

 

I have a fair memory for faces, but not necessarily the names that go with them. When I search for a name, I can often come up with it, but it may take me an hour or even a day. When the face is a bit fuzzy, I often have a sense of the person—where I met him or her, maybe their profession, family, where and why we were together, and so on. You know, Whatshisname, the mustache. Such vague memories are not in the same class as the fixture memories of my hair drier and pencil sharpener. They are easy come, easy go memories, more like paperwork.

 

My autobiographical memory is usually punctuated by strong feelings. Like the time I raised my hammer over the last roofing nail when I built my camp—and whammed it down directly on my thumb holding the nail. Pain, sadness, happiness, any feeling will cement a particular episode in memory as long as it crosses a minimal threshold. Many memories are categorized by the feelings that accompanied them. Excitement—being outdoors during an earthquake in Seattle, seeing a manta ray leap out of the gulf, finding fifteen dollars blowing across the lawn, picking up an ancient stone knife at the base of a cliff. Shocking loss—crying in the assembly before school was let out when FDR died, working in the darkroom while listening to the news that JFK had been shot, being furious when Jack Ruby shot Oswald, the phone call from my mother when my father died unexpectedly, that other phone call 27 years ago from the police on the morning they found my son’s body in the park.

 

These emotion-based memories are not buried very deep. They fairly leap to mind at slightest provocation, making the then accessible to the now as if no time had passed. Such memories have greater clout than mere pencil sharpeners or paperwork. They are very much part and parcel of who I am, key constituents of my ongoing consciousness.

 

I don’t know much about conceptual memory, except that words and ideas seem to emerge from nothingness when called upon. I think of concepts as being distilled from similar experiences, and of words serving as labels that index them, making general summaries of experience available when a particular situation calls them to mind. Where do words come from? I don’t know. We have all had the tip-of-the-tongue experience of knowing a word is there, but not being able to retrieve it. We may have the meaning, number of syllables, first letter, or rhyme (it sounds like . . .), but the word itself remains elusive.

 

When I write, words flow from inner space, and quickly disappear, making room for others that follow. It is the process that is important, not the words themselves. I mean the meaning-making process by which a yearning to say something is coupled to particular episodes of experience within compass of a conceptual field given voice in the vocabulary and phraseology of one language or another. I am aware in myself that the entire process is underwritten by kernels of meaning—what I mean to say—that are more fundamental than the words I actually use. I often sense the presence of such a kernel just before I express it in words, realizing that words are redundant because the one kernel anticipated them all. I don’t know how it works, but the language kernels serve as seeds from which words themselves bloom.

 

Lastly, I rely on a kind of situational sense or memory to hold these different pieces (and many others) together in coherent form to produce the running script of my consciousness, the narrative of my life. Situations have specific locations, casts of characters, furniture and props, relationships, and ongoing actions. They are not scripted beforehand; but develop according to the active relationships which bind them together in one place at one time. Consciousness is always situated, so that it follows only the most relevant details as they unfold in the mind. Those details take on meaning and relevance because of their placement within a particular situation. This happens, then this, then this. All making sense because of the flow of events in a particular place among a specific cast of characters.

 

Consciousness is a kind of theater, for an audience of one, who acts all the parts, and imbues unfolding events with personal significance. Inner life is nothing if not dramatic in nature. Playwrights simply transcribe it into the idiom of some outer world. Which is why we can find ourselves in Shakespeare. He deliberately wrote us into his plays. As all great artists are sure to include each of us in her works.

 

Neuroscientists worry about the so-called binding problem: about how the myriad shards of experience fit seamlessly together in the one vessel from which the stream of consciousness flows. My thought is that the unity of experience is made possible by the situational nature of consciousness. If it is a stream, it is a stream through a particular landscape at a certain time under specifiable conditions. Where one part of the brain (the amygdala) appears to activates emotional aspects of memory, another part (the hippocampus) provides a map of the relevant landscape, while consciousness itself keeps track of meaningful events as they transpire within that setting.

 

That is conjecture on my part. What we know is that different parts of the brain are involved in storing and activating different aspects of memory. And that whereas the amygdala is activated in emotional experience, the hippocampus is activated in relational experience. My hunch is that men and women rely on the situational-relational aspect of experience in different ways, so the same area of the brain (the hippocampus) creates a detailed map of human connections and relationships in the female mind, while in males that area may generate a more utilitarian map of objects (hair driers and pencil sharpeners) distributed in space. I base this notion on my long years of interacting with men and with women under a great variety of circumstances. As my partner sums it up: women relate, men report.

 

Here I am, duly reporting on consciousness as I experience it on the inside of my skull. As I do so, I realize that there is not a single degree of separation between me and my chosen object of study. I am my consciousness; my consciousness is who I am. Put differently, consciousness is all. I, as a separate entity, do not exist.

 

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