(Copyright © 2010)

What do I mean when I say we live in our heads, or on our own private planets?

I mean, for instance: Time is a convenient fiction, a designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured. Time is a construct of the human mind. Think of your watch as a miniature model of the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth each day. When we ask what time it is, we mean in reference to that model of the sun’s fictional motion through space. Time is a game we play in our heads, extending it imaginatively backward to days before Earth and its sun were formed, all the way to the alleged big bang, and forward imaginatively to days after the sun itself or any sort of timekeeper will exists.

We loosely think of the ageing process as a product of time, as if time were an agent that causes people to grow old. But in fact age is nothing other than the collective physical and mental changes that, instead of coming from time, produce the illusion of time itself as a supposed medium making change possible. If we could manage not changing from what we are right now, we would be eternal; that is, we’d have no need for time.

Space, too is such a construct of imagination. Objects do not exist in space, they exist in relationship one to another in the human mind as viewed from a particular perspective. Space is not the medium of such relationships but a designated contextual framework overlaid upon them for the purpose of calibrating and measuring them in ways meaningful to human awareness. We find meaning in the concepts of both time and space, even though in and of themselves they are figments of the mind. Changes exist; relationships exist; and both require the presence of observers such as ourselves. Without us, time and space would not exist. Even with us being present, we demonstrably exist (we can pinch ourselves to find out), but they exist only as ideas or concepts in our thoughts, speech, and writing.

Time and space are human categorizations—ways of reaching out to the world in order to find it meaningful in terms we provide and understand. They are inventions, not discoveries, artifacts of culture, not nature. They are useful mental tools, right up there with toothbrushes and toilet paper to help us shape the world to our liking.

Laws and human rights, too, are similar categorizations, ideas projected outward as if they were properties of the world itself. If human rights were features of the world, there would also be ant rights, wolf rights, bacteria rights, virus rights, tree rights, and so on. No, it is we who maintain that human rights exist as a convenient fiction, and devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reifying, objectifying, or substantiating that idea. The propertied classes have given us the idea of private property, and crafted a maze of legal opinions to “prove” it is not merely an illusion. Imagine a robin claiming the territory around its nest as its private property to do with as it pleases, referring to words written on paper in the form of a deed to support its claim. The words make it so one creature on Earth has exclusive “ownership rights” to its portion of the planet, and can justly do battle with any rival creature that thinks otherwise. 

The scale at which we project human ideas into the world is an indicator of the scale at which we imagine those ideas in our minds. We generally don’t think overly large or small, but just right—at the scale of typical human engagements such as gestures (like waving at an approaching friend, or throwing a Frisbee or a ball), activities (flying a kite, playing football, mining a hilltop for coal), everyday structures (houses, city blocks, skyscrapers, airfields), or grand undertakings (famous battles, voyages of exploration, pandemics, missions to the moon). The resolution at which we pick out the relevant details of our lives is scaled to the dimensions of the human body and how we use it. We find it difficult to think at bedbug scale, elephant or giraffe scale, ends of the Earth scale, voyages to Mars scale, or galaxy scale. That is, the world in our heads is largely scaled to norms set by everyday personal experience. Think of Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover from the mid-1970s depicting the view west from 9th Street in Manhattan to “Hudson River,” “Jersey,” and, much diminished, the nameless far beyond.

Our personal planets are populated by myriad creatures to which we give names, forms, characteristics, and entire resumes, even though we know they aren’t really real—just pretend real—as if there were degrees of reality. But we shift from one degree to another as easily as any child captivated by Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. Films, plays, and literature depend on our not making distinctions between degrees of engagement or believability. Every advertisement presents a hokey view of reality, as does every cartoon, public relations campaign, vote in Congress, or wedding ceremony. Without being overly fussy, we choose to believe what fits into our general scheme of things at the time. Consciousness is peopled by Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, Paul Bunyan, Moses, Captain Nemo, Raskolnikoff, Aida, the Cowardly Lion, and Sugarplum Fairy. Yes, we tell our children, there is a Santa Clause, each supernatural (better, subnatural) being having a secure place near our hearts as well as in the depths of our minds.

We rush to demonize or lionize others in defending how we choose to characterize them, pointing our fingers with glee at those who fall short of or exceed our routine expectations for human behavior within what we consider a normal range. It doesn’t take more than one true confession to shift a saint to the opposite extreme of our personal Pantheon: witness Tiger Woods, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and Donald Rumsfeld. Men seem to have a hard time measuring up to their pretensions of virtue. In each of their minds they remain that innocent little kid who is not capable of doing wrong. From governor or attorney general to lowly two-timer in one day! Dontcha just love it! Everybody does. Where, then, does reality lie? Which persona is real? How are we to categorize the male animal?

Even members of the Supreme Court, who you’d hope would know where they reside, do not live in the real world. On one hand Justice John Paul Stevens takes his lived experience into account in interpreting the Constitution, as the framers must have taken their own experience in their day. On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia claims to have direct access to the intent of the framers by consulting the words they committed to paper in composing the original document, even though Earth has orbited the sun 223 times since those heady days, slaves are no longer regarded as property, women can vote, and usage of the English language has strayed far beyond the conventional bounds that prevailed in the seafaring-agrarian days of the thirteen colonies.

There is something in the human mind that loves to be fooled and to fool others. When I visit my son Michael’s grave on his birthday in February each year, I find bright blues and reds of artificial flowers with plastic greens poking from waterless jars buried in snow before other graves. Such displays always stop me in my tracks to consider the intent of placing such bouquets. Setting out real flowers at Memorial Day I can understand, but false ones out of season gives me pause. I see a show of remembrance but not remembrance itself, as if good intentions sufficed, or giving impressions was the issue. Fortunately, the dead are blind and cannot watch the little plays staged on their behalf. I am being judgmental here, a quality of mind that keeps me from adorning my son’s grave with plastic flowers from China. Usually, his grave marker is buried under snow, but I know exactly where it is in relation to the great oak overhead, and where his ashes are placed. I visit the grave to converse with the son who still lives in me, and is with me wherever I go. Where is reality, cremated and buried beneath a stone, or in my head?

We love to be fooled by slight of hand because it creates a slight of mind that is thrilling in being inexplicable. Whatever our age, magic shows make us wonder about the nature of things. How is it possible to saw a lady in half without doing violence to her body? She doesn’t seem to mind, and even wiggles her toes during the cut. Suspension of skepticism and disbelief makes children of us all. How do cars move? How do planes fly? How do pumpkins get so big? How will St. Peter react to what he reads under our name in the great ledger when we show up at the gate? Baudelaire’s characterization of genius as childhood recalled at will applies to the part of our conscious minds that defies the ageing process by staunchly staying the same throughout our lives. Or at least seems to stay the same, even if periodically updated. The child within may well be a fictional persona, but the old feeling of innocent wonder and curiosity is available to us at all times. And that feeling recalled in the face of mysterious events gives us pleasure, so once we find our way back to it, we go there as often as we can. Perhaps it is on that level that we are so taken with artificial flowers today. And read Marvel Comics as kids.

Sporting competitions bring out a similar childhood sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad. In the bleachers, we become our childhood selves once again, living solely for the moment, being fully engaged, waving our arms, jumping up, yelling with mindless abandon. When we are in that place, nothing else matters but the game being played as we see it from our childhood perspective. It is no wonder that the sports section is a fixture of the local newspaper. It invites us to release our inner child, to engage now as we did in our days of non-stop excitement and wonder. The substrate of the so-called real world is Baudelaire’s sense of genius being rooted in childhood, not to be simply recalled but relived in the moment. Meaning is there when that happens, old days mapping onto new, rejuvenating us by early concepts reaching out to sensory patterns in the now, recognizing them, making them seem familiar, and so true.

Lying in bed last night, I realized that in language, art, and music alike, patterns of relationship are everything. The brain is a seeker of relationships between patterns, and when it finds such relationships through any combination of the senses—whether simultaneous or sequential, visual or auditory, linguistic or experiential—the mind bestows meaning on those patterns in the sense of understanding what is taking place in terms it has encountered before. To understand is to wrap the now in the then, the here in the there, the new in the old, the concrete in the abstract and conceptual. All made possible by signals in the brain, wherever located, that share a recognizable rhythm. Where such neural rhythms can be appreciated in relation one to another, that is where we live because we are made to make just such connections. Learning to read is an exercise in pattern recognition and relationship. Ditto for listening to music and looking at art. Recognizing a face as familiar underwrites that face with a history, which makes it meaningful in a personal way. Discovering a familiar feel to a situation conveys meaning from memory onto that situation, even though we have never been in precisely that one before. With the result we know who we are in that place, and assume the persona of our old selves again.

Where and what is reality? It is not waiting for us to discover behind closed doors, but comes with us when we walk into a situation buzzing with patterns of stimulation we can put a familiar feel to and a name. Reality is within us as a sense of the trusted and familiar, qualities with which we reach into the unknown in hopes we will find something meaningful because recognizable. If we find no such patterns, we are not in our element, and so feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.

Cultures are known by the distinctive patterns of their ways of dressing, eating, speaking, praying, greeting, and going about the business of everyday life. They are flagrant in making themselves know to all comers. Dark pinstripe suits generally do not consort with bright colored dashikis. There is no doubt whether our familiar patterns of recognition are in keeping with those here on display or not. We know intuitively and immediately if we belong here or not—if this is our sort of place, where we know who we are because our inner and outer patterns of relationship match up without discord.

Reality is within us as a replica of patterns we acquired in childhood by being immersed in a world that danced to a certain rhythm from our earliest days. Our caregivers set the beat and the tone, joined by our siblings and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Those primal patterns are stamped into connections and disconnections between neurons in our brains established in our formative days, months, and years, giving familiar patterns an edge over unfamiliar ones, recognizable sensory patterns an advantage over the novel or strange. Reaching into the world, we are ever sensitive to those same patterns that calibrated our young minds. As pattern recognizers go, it takes one to know one.

So, as I say, the real world is within, waiting to be released into an external world that would be a formless cacophony without our being there to put it in order. Reality is our doing. We are the ones responsible for recognizing its patterns on sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Which is why, to study the world, we must first study ourselves to discover in what sort of world we truly belong. On that basis, we can then make deliberate efforts to adapt to the world we find ourselves in—to accommodate to its rhythms, dances, and ways of being—so that we belong there as well as to the world we bring with us in our heads.

NASA Reality--Eagle flying where there is no air

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

Ω