How do we see our inner selves without subterfuge?

After thirty years of wayfaring as directed by my own mind, I have come to realize that I can turn my attention from my footsteps to the mind that is plotting them in advance to suit itself.

Mindfaring, that is, reveals the same journey from inside the black box that shelters its workings from view, workings that become evident by turning my attention back on itself.

What that takes is a mindset of self-reflection that makes such a turn not only possible or desirable, but essential in opening onto the next stage of my journey. The true adventure is not in the world; it is in my own head, the only adventure I have immediate access to if I but choose to take it on.

As I now see it, my mind hosts my situated intelligence in engagement with its world. It is the navigator essential to the art of wayfaring itself. Minds are evolution’s gift to those who remember the impact of patterns of energy from previous rounds of experience, then act appropriately in the now. We all build our minds by noticing, comparing, judging, and acting as we make our way day-by-day, dreaming our way night-after-night, remembering the highly-charged and often-repeated moments for future reference.

In drawing this series of posts on consciousness to a close, my last suggestion to those who read these words is that you develop your mindfaring skills by noticing what you pay attention to, and how, when, and why.

That is, by placing yourself-as-subject at the focus of your own engagement. Also, by tracking what you remember, and what brings that to mind. And by appreciating the respective dimensions of each engagement, as well as how those dimensions collectively frame the flowing situations that shape your inner life and outer actions.

Too, when you act, I suggest that you notice the depth of your concentration at the time so that you feel the true power of your awareness. And as you engage the worlds of nature, culture, community, or family, that you track the situations developing in the core of yourself as you move ahead.

In particular, be aware of your successes and setbacks, and how they feel on the inside. I predict that in short order you will be reaching toward the world with greater confidence (based on more solid self-understanding), and be less-dependent on the world to do your work for you.

In short: know thyself from a neutral perspective, then practice that knowing on a daily basis. Learn to know others, then engage with them on caring, respectful, yet familiar terms.

Strive to balance despair with hope, fragility with durability, forethought with spontaneity. Live a sensitive and an intentional life, being ever-mindful of the personhood of those around you, and the planethood of Mother Earth. Steer clear of nicotine, alcohol, and other mind-altering or numbing drugs.

If you do this, you will become a true mindfarer, which may not be your measure of success, but is sure to keep you gainfully employed for many years, and bring you closer to yourself and to those with whom you actively engage.

As for myself, with one more post to go, this is my penultimate try at depicting my mind. In the end, I strongly believe in setting the stars free from their ancient bondage to illusory gods; with Roget, I believe in striving to know my own mind; and I also believe in practicing like a baseball player to do the best I can in the time I am allowed with whatever tools I’ve got, even if only a ball and a stick.

These are distinctly low-tech efforts, based not on artificial intelligence (AI), but the real thing.

It is time for me to move on. After adding one last post, an outline of my journey in writing this blog, and an abstract after-the-fact, I am gone.

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In a very real sense, what I’m working from in writing this blog is the aftermath of writing a doctoral dissertation in 1982 as a grad student in the Humanistic and Behavioral Studies Department of Boston University’s School of Education. It took decades for me to shake off the academic tone I adopted in writing a 625-page book that, as far as I know, no one has read all the way through except me.

More particularly, I am working through the lessons I learned in writing Chapter 5, Pheromones to Phenomena, which dealt with the workings of the brain as understood at that time (largely based on animal studies). When I go back and read that chapter, I find what I wrote then is still true for me today. Not that my growth was stunted from then-on; more that what I hit upon in that chapter about the neural underpinnings of perception, judgment, and memory still serves as an excellent model for the mind revealed to me through introspection.

Of course we find in the world largely what we expect to find, so it sounds like I am indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that’s not what I mean. What I wrote then about the nature of consciousness still helps me to understand my mind of today. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

Not that I literally remember those thoughts from yesteryear. They surprise me every time I go back and read them. It’s the unspoken sense of concentration and commitment that drove me to write the dissertation that sticks with me. Now reduced to an intuitive feel for the topic I am writing about, a kind of silent presence in the background that guides me twenty-three years later.

I began Chapter Five, Pheromones to Phenomena, with the radical switch our species had to make from reliance on our ancestors’ sense of smell to living in a higher world with almost no smell at all. When we stood up on our hind legs, our jaws and snouts lessened, and we had to compensate for what we lost by rapidly developing our senses of vision and hearing, along with the ability to control muscles governing balance, posture, stance, and precise movement of our fingers.

It is the experience of thinking those thoughts that I retain to this day, not writing about what gradually happened to the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and other perceptual systems in having to adapt to a world without pheromones.

I was wholly engaged with my topic when I wrote my dissertation letter-perfect (with White-out) on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it is what my brain has done with that engagement that I carry with me today, not the actual words and citations.

I know because I went back and read Chapter Five: there it all was in splendid detail. When I practice introspection in writing about the foibles of my own mind, that process is backed up by the deep concentration I put into clicking away at my typewriter day-after-day for over two years. And into scouring the sources I read in the years before that.

The difference between then and now is that today I am trying to write in English appropriate to a blog aimed at a general audience, not academic English as suited to dissertation committees and peer reviewers. It has taken this long to shed old habits learned in school, and as you can tell from reading these posts, I am still trying to overcome a natural bent to make simple things sound complicated.

Are my ideas now out-of-date because they are descendants of ideas I wrestled with in grad school? Or even earlier? I’ve written about the important role memory plays in perception, so that the words I write today go back to the language I babbled when I was an infant. Are my words as old as I am? I say, no, because I see myself as a trainable who can adapt to changing times. Words do change, but not as fast as people do. By reading a few notes, we can still make sense of Chaucer and Shakespeare, if not Beowulf—all far older than I am.

So what did I write in my dissertation? Here are some samples from Chapter Five of Metaphor to Mythology (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982). In these excerpts, because olfactory bulbs (smell receptors) in our ancestors have such immediate access to the hippocampus and limbic system, the interactive components that make up that system are featured, including hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. I am using these bulleted quotations to illustrate the specialized world I inhabited in grad school.

  • The entire cortex is an evolutionary derivative of the sense of smell (page 259).
  • Our erect posture, by distancing our olfactory receptors from the sources of smell, has deprived us of the benefits of pheromonal [olfactory signal] communication, so it is not surprising that we have increasingly come to rely on non-chemical means for integrating our internal state with our environment (page 260).
  • The limbic system operates basically as a “selection unit” to determine the biological value of sensory information in relation to various organic drives, and then functions to facilitate the storage of information deemed relevant to successful functioning of the organism (page 263).
  • The regulation of cognitive function shifts away from the processing of pheromonal signals to the identification and evaluation of cues in the visual and auditory modalities. What remains constant, however, is the crucial role of the hippocampus (and the limbic system in general) in learning, memory, communication, and social organization (page 264).
  • The interpretation of neurological studies often relies heavily upon the twin concepts of the internal and external milieu. . . . homologous to one-celled animals in which a semipermeable membrane separates an “inside” from an “outside.” The internal milieu represents the equilibrated chemical innards that constitute the life-sustaining works of the organism; the external milieu being the sum total of all ambient stimulation an investigator can imagine to be impinging upon its sensibilities (page 268).
  • [Hippocampal] function is related to the enduring consequences of a comparison (seeing one signal in terms of another, a kind of seeing-as) between two different classes of sensory input—one primarily sensory, the other . . . facilitated by precedent episodes of similar experience (page 277f.).
  • Under novel circumstances it would be the hippocampus that would effect a comparison between perception and memory, emitting a signal that would be proportional to the non-familiarity of the sensory signal, and leading to exploratory behavior designed to acquire a more coherent and detailed version of that signal. Comparisons resulting in a high degree of registration would enable the animal to make a response on the basis of an assumed identification to which the existing repertoire of behaviors would more likely be both adequate and appropriate (page 280).
  • Since an animal’s sensory stimulation will vary in accordance with its own locomotion, it is essential that some mechanism be available to distinguish between self-generated and environment-generated variation in sensory input. To accomplish this, signals that exhibit covariation with proprioceptive input from muscle spindles and receptors in tendons and joints must be credited to the organism itself and subjected to inhibition in order to determine the coherent pattern of sensation that can be attributed to stimuli in the environment (page 282).
  • The normal animal lives neither for the moment nor for the past, but is able to compare the two and make an appropriate response to adjust the difference. It is able to find meaning in its phenomenological milieu and, when it can’t, to embark on a series of excursions that will enable it to discover appropriate meanings for novel phenomena. And if those meanings are repeated often enough, or are important enough, then the normal animal is capable of remembering them (page 283f.).
  • The hippocampus, as a novelty detector, directs its output to several important destinations: to the hypothalamus, the custodian of the internal milieu; to the midbrain reticular formation, regulator of arousal and wakefulness; to the prefrontal areas in which so many separate signals are coordinated; and to itself, via a kind of reverberating feedback loop that turns momentary stimuli into enduring potentations that influence its own activity. In each case it acts like a switch that turns another operation on or off, depending on the disparity between the signals it receives. From its central location it influences motivation, arousal, sensory coherence, interference, memory, meaning, and behavior (page 284).
  • Since the business of memory is survival (by making lessons learned in the past available on suitable occasions in the present), it is not surprising that these survival-related functions form the core of many of our strongest memories (page 286).
  • The hippocampus (and its associated network of connectivities to related areas) thus makes it possible for repeated episodes of similar sensory signals to exert a systemic influence that renders them familiar and—beyond that—meaningful. Such signals are more readily “welcomed” by the perceptual system because they “speak” to prior experience, to the heritage of the perceiver. And, since they address not an identical replica of themselves but an abstraction derived from multiple repetitions (or approximations) over time, their reception occurs within a framework of historical reference that equates their existential pattern of sensory stimulation with something already in the perceiver’s possession, with a referential meaning that is already an aspect of the perceiving apparatus itself (page 292).
  • Sensory signals, . . . are like keys that acquire a meaning by being inserted into certain locks that anticipate their configuration; sensations are different from meanings in the same sense those keys are different from the locks that they open. And, to continue the simile, the hippocampus is the locksmith who adjusts the lock to fit those keys that are repeatedly or forcefully imposed upon their workings (page 292).
  • The salient feature of context-related memory is the influence it exerts upon the process of perception. . . . Its primary function is to direct attention toward those aspects of a situation that are most likely to prove pertinent to the motivational state of the individual perceiver. It is a reaching-out for perception on the basis of an authority vested in the ongoing interaction between self and world as it has been achieved in the current (or immediately prior) situation. Thus does experiential meaning, once unlocked, strive to perpetuate itself by [putting] itself forward on the basis of its recent successes, attempting to discriminate a world that would fulfill its current promise as if foretold as a kind of destiny—like a lock awaiting to be fulfilled by a certain key(page 295).
  • [I]t is no accident that our ideas nest within each other so conveniently, that our understanding is hierarchical in nature, allowing the most venial notion to coexist with our highest ideals, the mundane with the celestial, the profane with the sacred. For all its complexity, the paramount achievement of the brain is the selection and synchronization of its ongoing processes so that mind is characterized by a coherent flow of ideas that provides a continuous rationale for purposive behavior (page 301).
  • [Our] strategy [is] to present ourselves to the world from the security of our heritage of personal experience, and to weld whatever patterns we discovery firmly to the structure we have already built. The world we see is the world we have learned to see. That is the genius of our species and the secret of our survival: the world is always contingent upon the way we present ourselves to it—upon the way we have learned to seize it. No miracle is more profound because, instead of granting us eternal wisdom, it challenges us to pursue every opportunity for learning, and to remain open to the worlds that others have discovered for themselves (page 317).

So, no, I’m not making-up these posts as I go along. They are deeply rooted in my life’s cumulative endeavors and experience. That is, in the flowing situations in my innermost parts that give meaning to my life.

Engagements between self and other have been around since the early days of one-celled lifeforms drifting about in their aqueous environments. Which-was-which depended on your perspective, that of cell or other, self or world.

Later on, the issue became control or regulation of the engagement. Again, that depended on your perspective, whether you took the point of view of the cell or of the environment. You had to be in the ongoing loop of engagement, either looking out or looking in.

From the cell’s point of view, the problem was to solve the world puzzle of where you were and what was going on around you. From outside the cell, the problem was to figure out what was going on inside the cell.

The metaphor of the black-box problem applies, from both inside and outside the box. From inside the cell’s black box, the world is a mystery. From outside in the world, the cell is a mystery in a black box. There are two black-box problems: one solving the world puzzle from inside, the other solving the mind problem from outside. I use this metaphor to clarify the problem of consciousness.

In some situations the world seemed to be in control; in others, the cell seemed to be in control. But in every situation, control is actually shared between cell and environment, the balance depending on which is dominant during that particular engagement. That is, on whether the cell needed the environment more than the environment needed the cell, or vice versa.

Why does a cell need its surrounding world? To supply the resources it needs to sustain its internal activities. Why does the world need the cell? To consume the resources it has in excessive amounts.

The goal each way being to achieve a balance that works to the benefit of both self and world, cell and environment.

Cells help the world stay in balance; the world helps cells stay in balance as parts and extensions of itself. They are of the same system. The issue is chemical balance, physical balance, energy balance. All within a shared gravitational field rich in energy. In black-box terms, the solution to the two respective problems depends on resources being available both inside and outside the box. The key to balance is in the flow of life-sustaining engagement between input and output.

As both selves and worlds grew in size and complexity, control and regulation of engagements between them grew more demanding. Cells developed the ability to move about and, simultaneously, to gauge and identify a sense of different regions within their environments.

As evolution progressed, environments grew ever-larger and richer in content, but more challenging at the same time. Living organisms had to take greater risks in order to get what they needed to survive. The task of regulating engagements became more complex and difficult.

In response to increasing pressures, multicellular life evolved alternative strategies for survival. Some lifeforms traded their harbors in the sea for territories on land. Others took to the air. Still others learned to tolerate broader ranges of temperature, salinity, humidity, terrain, illumination, suitable foods, weather conditions, and so on. All in response to the urgings of the life force as fueled by individual metabolisms.

At some point, organisms outran their genome’s ability to prepare them for the difficulties they were to face, and consciousness emerged as a means of adapting to challenging conditions as they might arise. Habitat niches remained all-important, but the range of situations they presented as lifeform populations increased and diversified became less of an obstacle.

Consciousness allowed individual organisms to assess their environments (perception), consider their options (judgment), and set and enact behavioral goals accordingly (intentional action), all the while maintaining an ongoing flow of engagement with significant aspects of their environments (between black-box input and output).

Memory became the base of consciousness, providing a background against which to face into novel situations. Expectancy, curiosity, familiarity, conceptualization, and recognition became possible, simplifying the analysis of highly variable conditions.

Too, the old standard behaviors of reflex action, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, orthodoxy, rote learning, trial and error, and other energy-efficient shortcuts in lieu of full consciousness remained as viable alternatives.

But consciousness allowed memory to be linked to a review of alternative possibilities, prioritized according to a choice of criteria, and judgment concerning which choice made the best fit to the current situation.

So did consciousness serve to build on a Paleolithic genome to make it fit to serve in a modern world to which our ancestors never had to adapt.

Consciousness itself is a neurological response to a discrepancy between conflicting aspects of perception. It pointedly draws attention and awareness to unsettling aspects of experience, whether good or bad. When consciousness is focused on a particular problem, all else falls away as irrelevant. The ability to concentrate on a particular issue is the essence of consciousness.

By applying our neural resources to one situation at a time, consciousness makes our awareness both efficient and coherent, screening out all that is irrelevant to its current focus. This ability to rate situations on a scale of importance at the moment is one of our greatest assets in getting through the day one moment at a time.

At the core of consciousness is our situated intelligence that organizes a given situation in terms of the elements or dimensions that make it up. That core of situated intelligence is what we experience as the self, which changes from one situation to another as suits the occasion.

The dimensions of consciousness that might contribute to a particular situation include: memory, sensory impressions, feelings, motivation, values, imagination, understanding, life force (or energy level), humor, temperament, goals, skills, relationships, and many other factors that collectively constitute our minds.

Our situated intelligence stands at the nexus between incoming perception and outgoing action in the precinct where judgment and commitment are possible. It is activated by a gap, inconsistency, or abrupt change in our loop of engagement that rallies attention to that unsettling state of affairs. Our intelligence gathers its assets to focus precisely on that gap or inconsistency (duality, disparity, discrepancy, annoyance, delta signal, disappointment, surprise, shock, etc.) as a rousing alarm that serves to focus our attention, stirring consciousness to life. Here is a matter to be dealt with.

It is the nature of our minds as they have evolved to depict situations in terms of dualities (dichotomies, bifurcations, oppositions, contests, confrontations) and other forms of either-or, yes-or-no, approve-or-reject situations. This is due to the complementary roles of activation and inhibition that our neural networks play in shaping consciousness in different situations.

Our engagements between self and world take place on the four fundamental levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which I have extensively dealt with in developing my views on consciousness in this blog.

The above summary provides an outline of my wayfaring journey in my daily posts to Consciousness: The Inside Story, in, what to me appeared to make a coherent sequence, but probably appeared random to readers who broke into my stream of consciousness in the middle of its development.

Tomorrow I will remind readers where we may have been together as a review of my specific ideas about consciousness as posted to this blog.

399. Total Immersion

January 7, 2015

To insist on adherence to the rules of logic and reason at all times leads us astray. At the core, we are neither logical nor reasonable. We are what we are, doing the best we can to put pieces of the mind puzzle together however they might fit. If we don’t give ourselves to solving that puzzle by its own dictates, we’ll never impose a solution that fits from outside. Too much of our most intimate mental makeup marches to a series of different drummers, with beats that change and never settle down into a regular rhythm. Imposing a certain order on what we allow ourselves to think encases the mind in cement.

But the mind is not a rigid thing. It is a fluid organ that shapes itself to the demands of the moment. That is the genius by which we have survived all these millennia, not by being “right” and “proper,” but by adapting to the situation we are in. By detecting the structure of unique moments of history from inside our personal experience of those moments, not by imposing a predetermined structure from without.

As with our thinking, so in our acting do we need to prepare ourselves over the years by practicing the moves that are important to us. The best method is total immersion in what we want to do, trying it over and over again. Nothing worth doing comes easily. Practice is the secret of success. Not good looks. Not youth. Not luck. Not money. Not connections.

Practice.

We often give credit to talent and gifts, but the secret of talent and gifts is disciplined hard work. Think of Fred Astaire rehearsing fourteen hours a day to appear effortlessly graceful. We have to train our bodies, arms, hands, and fingers to do what we want. Mind over matter. Which is the true challenge we face. Make that mind over muscle—and tendon and joint and bone. Our minds and bodies are made to do the work, and to sharpen our performance through years of dedicated practice.

It helps if we break our task into stages that build one on another. Which is the nature of projects. We can’t tackle every challenge all at once. The recipe for successful action is to break it into sessions for working on one thing at a time. When we get good at one subroutine (in Tai Chi, say), we move to the next, rehearsing earlier ones as we go, adding new moves every day until we become masters of the whole. Then we move on to the next scene, paragraph, chapter, or movement of whatever we are engaged in building or perfecting.

Projects are a means of achieving concentration on one part of a complicated process after another, and concentration is of the essence in directing our full mental attention on both perception and action at the same time, that is to say, on our engagement with a particular activity.

Projects are behavioral units in which energy is consistently directed toward attaining a particular goal.

I have made over eighty PowerPoint presentations, each aimed at a particular audience to achieve a desired effect. Some I have made in a day, others have taken me months to perfect. Each slide has its place in the series so it adds to the plot by which the overall show builds to a fitting finale.

Each such presentation is the result of a project to which I give my focused attention to the same program over time, with frequent breaks lasting hours, days, or weeks between sessions. Eventually I finish a given show and move on to the next.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal, Bar Harbor, Maine, USA

One show I call “Heavy Metal” was built from photographs of cast-iron drain and manhole covers on the streets of Bar Harbor. Some castings were made in Portland, Maine, others in Canada, France, or India. It took me several weeks of patrolling the streets on the lookout for variations on my theme. When the lighting was wrong, I went back several times until it was right (showing the texture and design of the metal to good effect).

Fungal underworld

Hidden habitat of fungal underworld

My wanderings may have appeared random, but each foray contributed to the overall effect, and eventually I judged the project finished, then moved on to the next—the secret underworlds beneath caps of mushrooms, stems of trees in the Acadian Forest, estuary wildlife, horseshoe crabs, eelgrass meadows, and so on. Each show resulting from a project of concerted effort assembled over time.

 

Solo horseshoe crabs

Two solo horseshoe crabs pass side-by-side

376. Worlds in Collision

December 6, 2014

If we need proof that our minds are sustained by loops of sensory-motor engagement with the world, such proof is amply provided by how upset we get when our loops are interrupted for any reason.

“Not now! Can’t you see I’m busy?” “Go ask your mother!” “Don’t you have better things to do?” “Shut the door as you go out!” “Turn it down for God’s sake!” And a host of expletives that erupt without warning on just such occasions.

Concentration takes dedicated effort. Not only on sensory perception, but on coordinated judgment and action at the same time. Mental coherence is the issue. Voices of children and telemarketers break into our trains of thought, disrupting the flow, causing us to break stride, falter, and suffer confusion.

This is the end of world order as we know it. Distraction, interruption, competition, contradiction, opposition—we loathe them all, and do everything we can to suppress or avoid them. Physically. Violently. Repeatedly. We retreat to our rooms or cubicles and turn on soft music. Or we lash out in anger at a world that won’t let us alone. We love the worlds we create for ourselves at great personal effort and sacrifice. Our expressions, gestures, and body language warn others not to mess with what they can’t understand. Not to tread where they don’t belong.

Which is why the human world is and always has been in such turmoil. There isn’t one world out there but currently more than seven billion different worlds, each wrought to the liking of its creator and most ardent defender. Shouldn’t the right not to be offended or thwarted be one of our most fundamental freedoms?

What we fashion for ourselves within our sheltering black boxes, we cast upon the waters in which we are bathed, as if those waters were an extension of our private domains. As if Cuba were subject to U.S. jurisdiction. Ukraine subject to Putin’s dreams of glory.

If only we could put a one-way mirror in the end of our box so we could cast our gaze outward whenever we wanted to, but the seven billion couldn’t see in. All we want is freedom of thought and the right not to be bothered or thwarted. Is that asking too much? A right to maintain a personal sanctuary from which we can engage as we wish?

It’ll never happen. Engagement is a two-way street. Traffic flows both ways. Imposing our inner worlds on our outer worlds isn’t engagement at all; it is authoritarianism, tyranny, a forlorn hope. We need the world to temper our fantasies. Just as the world needs our separate inner worlds to spark the next stage of our common evolution.

Engagement is an art, not a right to have things our own way. Free speech lets us say what we want; whether anyone is listening is another matter entirely. If we are smart, we will go out of our way to balance sensory input against behavioral output, striving to learn by trial and error to steer a wise course.

 

(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)

 

Is human achievement due to innate ability (talent) or training and practice (hard work)? Daniel J. Levitin reports findings from research on that question in his book This is Your Brain on Music (Plume/Penguin, 2006; see Reflection 54: Books About Consciousness):

 

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. . . . [N]o one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery (page 197).

 

So practice does make perfect—deliberate, attentive, conscious repetition of routines until they belong not only to the likes of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Einstein, but to the rest of us as well. It’s not just a matter of putting in the time. The quality of that time is crucial to success. We must turn our passions into disciplined behaviors through strict concentration. That’s what it takes to build strong neural connections in our brains sufficient to turn the off-the-shelf model we start with into a customized brain suited to the challenges of today’s world. To realize our personal dreams, there is no substitute for concentration and hard work.

 

The secret to becoming an expert is motivation. To do better than we have done in the past, we’ve got to devote a good part of our conscious life to achieving our goals—whatever they might be. We can’t buy or rent success, or leave it to others to acquire for us. Life is a meaningless abstraction until we decide what we want our life to be. That is the first issue, which sets us off in a particular direction. Then the question arises, are we willing to do the work? We can’t know until we try. We’ve got to push ahead from where we are to see where we end up. It may not be the achievement we planned, but if we put in our ten thousand hours, we will be somewhere at least, far beyond where we started out.

 

Which sounds like the standard pep talk you’ve heard a thousand times. Hang tough, you can do it! But now we are beginning to understand how dedicated passion and conscious attention can, in changing our brains, change our lives—and change the world. To develop skills, timing, judgment, and knowledge, we have to do whatever is required to build specific patterns of nerve connections in our brains. Whatever we do to our brains, they will do for us on demand. That is the amazing secret of human experience. Treat our brains in humdrum fashion, our brains will see to it we lead humdrum lives. Challenge our brains to do all they can, they have no choice but to return the favor in kind.

 

It’s not how we treat others, it’s how we treat ourselves that is the key to success. Expect little—that’s exactly what we will get. If we ask for the moon, we must build that moon crater-by-crater over time into our brains; then when we ask, there it will be.

 

When we meet someone and ask what they “do” we generally imply “for a living.” But in getting acquainted, what we really want to know is, have they put in the necessary ten thousand hours of exercising their body and brain? If they’re young, what are they working on? What is their bliss, their passion? Apprenticeships and grad school take ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours flipping burgers leads to a burger-flipping life, perhaps eventually as a store manager or franchise owner if they dedicate their hearts and brains to getting ahead.

 

In my life, I have put in my ten thousand hours three times over: as a photographer, a teacher, and now a writer. I have reinvented myself each time to move into a more direct relationship with the world I wanted to live in. Each time I went back to Go and started over. I never got $200 for the effort, but went to the bottom and worked my way up. My first job in each field paid $5,000 a year in the currency of the day. Which sounds self-defeating, but I was changing with the times, so explored unknown dimensions of myself as they emerged in my awareness.

 

I have often claimed that consciousness has been selected for to give us a tool for working our way out of those tough, unanticipated situations we get ourselves into. In the old days, growing up to reproductive age used to be the problem, and then surviving long enough to help our children reach that age.

 

Now that we in the developed world are born with a cultural quilt around our shoulders, we are likely to take raising families and having grandchildren for granted as if they would be ours as a matter of course. Our life challenge then becomes, what are we going to be when we grow up so we can have the wherewithal to support the comfortable lifestyles we aspire to?

 

Fireman? Astronaut? Rock star? NASCAR driver? Consciousness has evolved to enable us to set goals such as these. And beyond that, to work our way through the arduous training sessions and hours of practice that will modify our bodies and brains accordingly, putting our goals within reach. Once appropriately stimulated, our brains will give us the skills to match our performance to our desires, enabling us to get close to what we hoped we might become.

 

Day by day, consciousness enables us to grow up. To survive in this world. Which is no mean accomplishment, given the hazards surrounding us on all sides. Consciousness would be our most prized possession, if only we didn’t take it for granted—as if growing up is ours by right and not something we have to make happen.

 

The world is full of people who have every sort of advantage—and waste them all by not doing the work of learning how to turn them to good use. They don’t put in their ten thousand hours. Or if they do, it is on high living, recreation, and entertainment. Or on sticking to outmoded ways. They shape their brains to their inheritance, not the promise of the future, so rely on the generic brain model they were given, which is more adapted to the world of 50,000 years ago than the challenges of today. Ice-age brains are good for dealing with ice ages. The W model might be good for highly privileged cave dwellers, but as we have seen over the past eight years, our basic equipment is no longer adequate to the life situations we encounter in today’s modern world.

 

Our skills and brains require updating. Which is where consciousness must be put to good use. Global warming, sea level rise, economic collapse, eternal warfare, overpopulation, overconsumption, wastefulness, militarization, power reserved to the wealthy for their own benefit—there’s got to be a better way. A spectrum of better ways.

 

The global situation requires each of us to put in a minimum of ten thousand hours in bringing our personal consciousness and skills up to the standards required if we are to contribute to the world we actually live in, not the fictionalized world featured in mythology, many schoolbooks, and the entertainment media.

 

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