Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Wildness is a quality of situations I get myself into. As I use the term, it points to relationships in nature I notice but don’t understand. My kind of wildness prompts feelings of awe and wonder, leading to questions about why things turn out as I discover them. Here are a few sample questions based on my pursuit of wildness during this past summer.

  • Why do trees grow layers of smooth bark—only to rend them in growing bigger, producing characteristic patterns and textures of rough bark?
  • Why do lichens express themselves in so many different forms?
  • Who drops crab parts on the forest floor far from water?
  • Why do Indian pipes sprout up in thick clumps, and who pollinates them so they can do it again next year?
  • Why do mushrooms come in so many colors?
  • Is it mushroom spores or flesh (or both) that attracts slugs?
  • Which comes first, flowers or their pollinators? Do they evolve together?
  • Life exposed at low tide seems so vulnerable to shoreline scavengers (raccoons, foxes, gulls, crows, eagles); it’s as if sharing the wealth were part of nature’s wild structure. Or is that my wild imagination?
  • Foresters talk about “overage” trees which should have been cut, but snags and decaying stems and branches are essential to healthy forest ecosystems in the future. What am I missing?
  • I have never found two trees alike; each grows into its unique location on Earth as an expression of the unique conditions on that site. Yet we talk in general terms of “wood” and “trees” and “forests” as if particular trees did not exist as living beings. Once we reduce life to platitudes and generalities (“dinosaurs,” “Indians,” “natural resources”), we are not telling the full story. Why do we base education on books as a substitute for personal discoveries and insights in the field?
  • How long does it take a spider to spin a ground web? How does it do that, fitting each strand to the local terrain?
  • Why is old man’s beard found on one branch of a tree and not another nearby? Does it get water from airborne vapor, or does that vapor need to condense on individual filaments?

Wildness to me is one big question. It is something that draws my attention but I can’t explain. I live with wildness every day as a mystery I seem to be immersed in, even though I know that sense is in me and not the world. If wildness existed in the world, everybody would be exploring it and asking questions, not making a killing on Wall Street or a battlefield in some distant land. Wildness is right here where I live because it is something I take with me everywhere I go. Wildness is part and parcel of my consciousness, a feature of my inquisitive mind.

It is no accident I have a small digital camera in a case on my belt. I love to photograph the wild mysteries I come across in my wanderings, and have since I was four years old. This summer I’ve been engaged with wildness every day, producing hundreds of JPG files each week. That’s what I do when I confront wildness—take its picture, if I can. Other people listen to music, watch TED talks, go to movies. I press the shutter. Then Photoshop each picture, adjusting size, contrast, brightness, sharpness. I compare photos I’ve made of wildness, select the few that present it best to my eye, resize them to post to my blog, upload them to show the world the kinds of situations I get into while making myself happen as I do.

It’s all here in this blog—the sensory impressions I face on a daily basis, the situations I build around those impressions because they’re so wild, and actions I take in response to that situated wildness by going through the necessary steps of engagement it takes to post my words and photos to the Web.

I offer myself as Exhibit A of being conscious in the way I have learned to think about consciousness over the past thirty years in terms of loops of engagement connecting my mind to the world—and hopefully to other minds in other corners of the world.

I’ll add a few more photos of wildness as I see it in my next post.

As ever (while I last), y’r friend, —Steve from Planet Earth

P.S. While stretching my legs after writing this post, I heard a whooshing sound nearby along the trail, and looked down on the rotting carcass of a snowshoe hare, covered with flies, alighting after my approach sent them whooshing up. Wildness in the flesh (i.e., in my mind). I came across the same scene on a different trail last year; it was gone in two days, old life turned to new.

Reflection 318: Self-Engagement

September 12, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I picture it, my mind consists of three parts operating in sequence: 1) a sensory or perceptual part that develops a felt understanding of my current situation in the world, 2) a visualizing part that represents that situation as interpreted from my personal point of view, and 3) a behavioral part devoted to planning and executing a course of action in fitting response to the situation I believe myself to be in.

The situation I create for myself on the basis of sensory evidence as I interpret it is the central feature of my conscious mind. I do not live in the material world so much as in an internal milieu I create for myself by giving personal meaning to the public energies impinging on my senses. The situation I live in is my version of the world as I take it to be. The world-as-it-is-in-itself is far too complicated for me to grasp; there’s too much going on at once. I can only deal with a simplified version that can bear the burden of meaning I thrust upon it. The raw energy I confront may be in the world, but the patterns I recognize and understand in the light of my prior experience are mine alone.

The same is true of the actions I take in response to felt situations—that response is my personal response to my situation as I am able to construe it. My actions are a function of the personal skills and abilities I have developed by living my personal life history of trial, error, practice, and rehearsal.

Perception, situation, action—these are the essential stages of awareness that in tandem make up my looping engagement with the energy-rich yet unknowable-in-itself world I live in. The interpreted world I construct for myself from patterns of energy selectively drawn from my surroundings—and emphasize by my fears and desires—shifts from one situation to the next, leading me to act as I do in making myself happen in the world as subjectively represented in the flow of situations through my internal milieu.

No, I do not live In the real world. None of us does. We live in inner worlds of our own making. We move from one situation to another as we can make out familiar patterns in the raw energies the world sends our way. Start to finish, life is a creative adventure we strive to make the best of in one loop of engagement, then the next, and the next.

We are driven by the valence of the feelings each situation kindles in us as we engage ourselves: good or bad, positive or negative, pro or con, hope or dread, carrot or stick. So are we propelled forward by the situations we find ourselves in, avoiding pain, seeking relief and happiness, engagement after engagement, loop after loop.

In my next post, I will offer my recent engagement with with wildness as an example of my creating a series of situations in which to make myself happen by acting in familiar ways through my chosen medium of photography.

Until next time, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 316: Self-Awareness

September 7, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I see it, phenomenology applies the powers of mind to understanding the self. Fundamentally, it is self-reflection taken to an extreme degree in discovering not the everyday, self-accustomed I in its everyday world, but how the biological self pieces together that I from the several dimensions of consciousness. These dimensions include sensory impressions; meaningful interpretations of those impressions; as well as feelings, biological values, autobiographical memory, accustomed habits, personal points of view, and felt situations within which subsequent courses of action become meaningful.

Phenomenology, that is, accounts for derivation of a course of appropriate action from analysis of sensory input within a situation informed by both current motivation and prior experience. It is an ongoing process for suiting actions of the self to the conditions shaping the situation within which that self exists as a coherent whole composed of diverse dimensions of consciousness.

From my own self-analysis, I identify these dimensions as including, on the perceptual side:

  • the cultural setting of experience
  • expectancy derived from past experience
  • arousal or wakefulness
  • attention
  • sensory impressions or phenomena
  • concepts as recognizable classes of sensory impressions
  • understanding within fields of interrelated concepts
  • feelings
  • biological values
  • culminating in a perspectival sense of the situation one is facing at the time.

Dimensions of consciousness on the behavioral side include:

  • judgments prompted by felt situations
  • decisions about what might be done
  • setting of goals
  • planning of projects and relationships
  • execution of projects and relationships
  • culminating in a program of action monitored by attention.

The entire assembly of coordinated dimensions of consciousness constitutes a loop of engagement joining an individual to a world within the situation as consciously construed in his or her mind.

By this scheme, our lives don’t just happen as they do; we make them happen in light of our biological motivations and prior experiences applied to our current situations as we construct them in our minds. Yes, we respond to patterns of energy interpreted as events in the world, but we also make ourselves happen as our engagements with those ongoing events develop moment-by-moment.

Phenomenology is the conscious and deliberate study of those momentary events in our personal experience as based on the dimensions of consciousness that apply at the time. Even if we don’t study them, those moments happen unconsciously anyway—as if we had no agency in their doing. Phenomenology applies the powers of the mind to personal experience, highlighting our role in making ourselves happen as we do.

No more and no less, phenomenology is the process of making ourselves—not world-aware—but self-aware. That is, it lets us shoulder responsibility for being ourselves without blaming the world for making us who we are. No learning can be more crucial than that in coming to self-understanding and self-realization. Which is why I am subjecting you to this exercise.

As ever, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

If, as I claim, wildness is subjective (phenomenological), so, too, are happiness and its pursuit. Feelings and values are not in the world but in our minds. In fact, the world, insofar as we can be aware of it, is in us, along with everything else we can experience. We are not born to a world so much as born to ourselves.

What the world does supply is patterns of ambient energy, many of which we come to recognize as familiar, and to which we give names. And not only names (to single them out), but meanings in relation to our memories of personal experience, so we come to understand (stand under or support) those familiar patterns in personal ways. We lay meanings on the patterns we associate them with, making it seem as though that significance came with the patterns (as information), but actually the patterns elicit it from our memory of earlier patterns we have experienced and named in particular situations. Which is why someone speaking to me in Russian, say, or Arabic may believe she is telling me something, while I (a speaker solely of English) hear only the sounds she makes (the patterns of energy issuing from her lips) without the meanings she associates with those sounds.

Learning a language means learning to associate personal meanings with particular sound combinations directed by members of our culture at us on specifiable occasions, which we translate or construe as personally meaningful situations. It is how we understand those situations that is mapped onto the recognizable sounds that we hear, so that the situation conveys the meaning we come to link to the speech sounds we hear on that occasion.

Speech, that is, is made up from both a public and a private component, one a patterned flow of energy as speech sounds, and the other a sense of the currents of mental activity within us that accompanies our hearing of those sounds. Putting the public and private components together, we “hear” meaningful speech.

How wild is that? Unruly or whimsical enough that each person present when a certain utterance is made may take it differently (that is, personally) although each assumes they all speak the same language.

Only by smoothing the differences between our individual streams of experience through rote repetition and iron discipline do we ever approach speaking and understanding somewhat similar languages. It is far easier to assume we all speak the same language than to accept the idiosyncratic nature of the language-learning process. Which is why there is so much misunderstanding between us, because we don’t hear what is said to us in the same way it is spoken, much less speak truly for our inner selves.

Nothing is wilder than the nonsense we spout when we don’t monitor our own efforts at speech. We often seem to say one thing but mean something quite different, particularly when we try to please our audience by saying what we think they want to hear. Hard as it is, sticking to the facts of personal experience is best, along with listening carefully to what others say in response.

The problem is that so-called facts are a blend of public sounds and personal meanings, so are seldom as clear as we want them to be. One approach is to say what we said again in different words, then to be open to whatever response comes back, and to keep trying in the spirit of true dialogue between equals.

Wild words often miss their mark if the passions behind them, the fears and desires, are suppressed or lead to unintended consequences. If we were the rational beings we claim to be, we’d speak the true every time, but we aren’t and we don’t. Rationality is a myth, or at best an ideal we aspire to but seldom attain.

Instead of blaming others for the troubles of the world, we do better to get clear in our minds what we want to accomplish, then remake the world one person at a time, one engagement at a time. When words are involved, we have to remember that words don’t contain meanings so much as suggest them to other minds having unique habits of speech. It takes time and effort to reconcile differences in personal outlook and understanding in even the simplest situation. “Hi, how are you?” opens onto a spectrum of possible responses. The color of the reply is not ours to predict.

Interpersonal engagements are not set pieces so much as voyages of exploration and discovery. We send our words into the world to see where they take us. Life has but one destination; the route we take in arriving there makes all the difference.

It is good to remember how wild words can be, especially in tense situations. On that note I’ll sign off for now. Y’r brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Wildness is a quality of felt situations that arouses curiosity (What have we here?) and invites further attention and exploration as guides to appropriate action (What are we going to do about it?).

The examples of wildness I have illustrated (Reflections 301–313)—tree bark, lichens, crab remains, Indian pipes, fungi seen from above and below, flowers, shore life at low tide, fallen trees, standing trees, ground webs, old man’s beard—show wildness in the form of noticeable features and curiosities met in a forever-wild sanctuary on an island in Maine.

Wildness in that sense means existing in a natural state, not groomed, tamed, or cultivated. Existing where? In the mind of one particular person, namely me, Steve from Planet Earth. Wildness is a quality of my personal awareness of a situation I am in at the time. This is not wildness in the world so much as a sense of wildness from inside looking out through these eyes. Wildness, that is, as an aspect of mind, of personal conscious experience. I am writing about wildness as being subjective or phenomenological, wildness as a property of consciousness, and of my consciousness in particular.

I am not concerned with civilized wildness here, with warfare, cruelty, greed, or abuse. I am more interested in wildness that admits to mystery and wonder and unending engagement. Wildness we can build a life around without destroying other lives. Wildlife that opens onto a landscape we want to learn about, to wrestle with so we can feel, grasp, and understand it. This kind of wildness promotes engagement enabling us to grow into the landscapes of our own minds.

I am interested in wildness that leads us to appreciate other cultures, make voyages of discovery, visit national parks, and explore our surroundings and native habitats with curiosity, awe, and respect. This wildness expands our mental horizons so our minds have no choice but to expand instead of shrink as self-satisfied minds often do.

The way to build such a wild kind of life is to pay attention to the details of sensory impressions that attract and draw you in, not take them for granted as features of a conceptual and conventional existence. To savor where you are in your own mind, and want to reach beyond your current self to the self you will become in the future. That inner sense of wildness will lead you to a life of mental adventure, exploration, and discovery. You build yourself inside-out. You don’t set out to be a nurse or policeman so much as see how far you can get on what you’ve got right where you are.

That’s where your mind will take you if you give it free rein to live out its own wildness in making yourself happen according to your untamed insides.

That’s what I’ve been trying to say in my last thirteen posts. As ever, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

In Reflections 281–299, I have laid out my thoughts on consciousness as I live it every day. Or it lives me. I am a dutiful scribe doing his best to keep up with the flow of his own inner voice. In these nineteen posts, I have summarized thirty years of dictation from within, doing my best to capture the gist of my personal experience.

I could go on—and one way or another probably will. There are fine points yet to make. But the rough outline of one man’s streaming consciousness is enough to give you an idea of my looping engagement with sensory impressions, felt situations, and actions as suggestive of the world I live in every hour of my life, which is what I set out to get down in succinct form.

With engagements, the flow is the thing, from one moment to the next, featuring one dimension of consciousness at a time, eventually getting them all in, then moving on to the next moment and next event. I have proceeded from expectancy as carried over from previous events, to arousal, attention, and sensory impressions at a useful level of discernment; then on to interpretation of those impressions, understanding them, feeling and valuing their import, building to a felt situation representing the world I am in as seen from my personal perspective; leading to judgment about what do do, to decisions, to setting goals, to projects and relationships, to signals sent to muscles culminating in action in the unknowable world of matter and energy, completing one loop in preparation for the next after that.

So goes my consciousness; so goes my awareness; so goes my life. That’s how I experience it, that’s how I view it, that’s how I reflect upon the complex events flowing through my mind. What I offer is an anatomy of my mind itself, not my brain. Of my brain I experience nothing beyond what I read in neuroscience textbooks, which detail molecular events taking place in other people’s experience, not mine. They write their books, I write mine, all purporting to deal with consciousness as revealed from different disciplines and personal perspectives.

My contribution is to present an overview of one man’s consciousness compiled from his immediate experience of it in the original. Neuroscientists can study the brain forever and never have consciousness reveal itself to them. It exists as a whole, not an assemblage of parts. So I look to to the whole as it presents itself to me, and write about that. I can describe it as I experience it, but I cannot explain it. I leave explanation to others relying on different methods than I use.

My method is to deal with what I meet through introspective reflection. In the case of this blog, adding to 300 separate reflections on my first-person singular experience. It’s a suggestive method, but not always clear. I pay close attention to what I experience, but trial and error are at the fore, so I hit or miss the mark I am aiming at.

After 300 posts, I feel it is time to rest my case. The gist, as I said, is contained in Reflections 281-299. I suggest you go back and read them in order, and see what you find relevant to your own streaming consciousness. That way we can meet mind-to-mind as equals, which all of us—given our unique hopes and strivings—truly are.

I deeply appreciate the attention you have paid to my blog. Thank you for the time and effort you have put in. I invite you to give me a sign at this point; write a comment at the foot of this page. I remain y’rs truly, —Steve from planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Actions (including speech) are how we get out of our heads and make ourselves known to the world. To reach the point where considered action becomes possible, we must shift our attention from the felt situation that motivates us to judging what kind of act would suit that situation. Once in that place, we can set goals for ourselves, engage in projects and relationships meant to lead us toward achieving those goals, and then implement them by acting within our projects and relationships to make our situated selves happen in the world, which is as far as we can go on one particular run of conscious activity. We then start on a new run by paying attention to incoming sensory impressions as shaped by expectancy and arousal, which redirect us to a revised understanding of our situation, and on to a further round of mental activity.

So runs our loop of engagement, from expectancy to arousal, attention and sensory impressions; on to interpretation of those impressions, understanding them, feeling and valuing their import in the form of an experiential situation as an extension of our personal history; and then on to judging the significance of that situation, setting goals, planning projects and relationships, and finally, implementing them in terms of intentional actions in the world.

Consciousness doesn’t circle so much as spiral because every round is different. Details get refined, skills improved, awareness enlarged, goals more closely approached—all heightening the sense of engagement. Two things escape our attention because we cannot attend them: 1) the working of the brain in supporting the mind, and 2) the working of the world in formulating it’s response to our individual projects and relationships as enacted, which remains to be sensed and interpreted during further rounds of engagement.

In summary, our loops or spirals of engagement comprise formation of sensory impressions, construction of felt situations from those impressions as interpreted, and taking appropriate action in light and fulfillment of key situations. Round by round, consciousness streams by as it does on a journey or in games of tennis, baseball, chess, or charades. The play’s the thing; our engagements are ongoing. If we take a break, we simply engage in other ways, as in dreams and reveries, or while on vacation.

As children, we grow into ourselves, learning how to engage within the intimate circumstances of our rearing. As a result, there are as many styles of engagement as there are childhoods. For instance, as adults, those who learn to fend for themselves without empathic support often end up being out for themselves alone, or solely for their sort of people, and don’t worry about the general well-being or self-fulfillment of others so much as hitting the jackpot or scoring points for themselves. They can be highly competitive, even thriving on the misfortune of others, on making a killing, inciting violence, or waging wars of aggression. Cooperative or diplomatic engagements are not their thing. They act as if they were alone in the universe, so worry only about what they can get out of it, not what they can give to or share with others. Their game is king of the mountain, which pits one against everyone else, a stark parody of Darwinian evolution. “One for one, all for none,” is their cry, the source of a great deal of poverty, suffering, and human misery.

No, engagement with others is the key to survival, starting with being on good terms with yourself through introspection and self-understanding, moving up to satisfying and respectful engagements with others (often unlike yourself) through play, working together, cooperating—each identifying with all as multiple variations on a single theme. If you can’t see yourself in others, you are missing the point of why each one is unique. Which is to to add to a whole through individuation, complementarity, and cooperation. So do we all fit together in forming one human family within one earthling family, which we are in both cases.

No man and no woman is an island (Donne’s metaphor), entire of itself. We all may be unique, but we are not alone, and never have been. We are made to engage again and again—our minds are proof of that.

Each man and each woman is one piece of the puzzle (my metaphor) of humanity, and of all earthlings beyond. After 299 posts, that is my message. As ever, I remain, y’r brother, —Steve from planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Having listed seventeen dimensions of my conscious mind in my last post, I will here group those dimensions into three major areas of mental processing.

Introspection opens onto the mind as a work in progress:

  1. Laying out the perceptual ground of what’s happening
  2. Exploring the felt significance of the scene or situation that emerges
  3. Coming to clarity about how best to engage with events as they move ahead

What’s happening, what it means, what to do, over and over again while taking new developments into account—that’s what introspection shows consciousness to be.

Blundering the whole way, I took thirty years of trial and error to reach the point where I could offer that summary. My journey is detailed in Consciousness: The Book, available through Amazon and Lulu.com.

Y’r friend, –Steve

I am off on an island in Maine, having these thoughts.

My primary engagement is not with money, power, truth, god, or technology, but with the ways of my own mind, which I must get clear on before reaching out to the mind of anyone else.

If I can grasp how I pay attention to sensory impressions, how I come to understand those impressions, and act upon them as I do, then I will have no need to inflict my personal style of engagement on others through dogmatic repetition, oversimplification, intimidation, ridicule, sophistry, or other rhetorical tactics such as dominate so many social interactions in today’s world.

If I can free myself up to be me, then I can let you do the same for yourself, and together we can coexist side-by-side as unique selves among seven-billion others doing the same.

But as long as I am invested in your being who I need you to be, then I deny you the basic freedom of being yourself, and the entire human enterprise falls apart around me from my insisting that I can know you better than you know yourself.

Henceforth, you have no obligation to vote as I tell you, to buy what I want to sell you, to pray as I command you, to think as I taught you, or to perform as I would have you.

And vice versa.

We are as free as we make ourselves through self-study and -understanding.

If we don’t each make that effort, who are we to engage anyone else?

(Copyright © 2010)

With this post, I am laying my blog to rest—at least for the time being. I intend to go back over what I have written so far with an eye to rearranging the content in less hectic order, better to convey my cumulative understanding of conscious experience. And to reveal gaps that need filling-in. Maybe a book will result, maybe not. I invite you to explore and ruminate on what is on offer. Check out postlinks (above) and look around.

In Reflection 121: Spirituality, I wrote of witnessing over the years a cartwheel display of northern lights, two dancers atop Cadillac Mountain at sunrise, a male goldfinch singing, and an aurora seen above an island joining with its own reflection to form a cosmic green eye. Of these sorts of experiences I wrote:

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble space Telescope.

Yes, that intuitive feeling of connectedness is a big part of what I call spirituality—but it is not all. An explicit feeling of thankfulness at being fully present to such moments also contributes to spirituality, a giving of self in gratitude for being alive to participate in yet another memorable instant of existence. Beyond feelings of thankfulness, often food and sex serve as vital dimensions of our relationship with partners, family, friends, and community. Without such driving values as food and sex, we would not be alive to enjoy the fruits of consciousness.

Lately, I have been trying to imagine myself crawling into a cave—say, Altamira or Lascaux—to witness images of animals such as bison, horses, lions, and mammoths painted by upper-Paleolithic peoples some 30 to 10 thousand years ago. My search is for purely visual patterns of experience so that I can stand before them without laying any preconceived meanings upon them, determined to claim the experience of uninterpreted (uncategorized) sight as if for the first time. How would it be to hold a dim, tallow lamp close to the walls of a cave to discover those hand-drawn animate forms? In my own era I am jaded by having seen a thing many times before so that I know immediately what it is, seeing more with my conceptual memory than my eyes. Recognizing a sight as representing a class of similar sights is not really seeing.

So I picture myself entering a cave in my mind, watchful over my little lamp, led by one who knows the way, stooping, crawling, expecting, yet not picturing what I will find. My hope is to see something so strange and wonderful that I am forced to reinvent myself to take it all in. Categorization makes me no bigger than I was; I want to live a life that grows larger every day. I need fresh visions and discoveries to feed my hunger for sensory experience, understanding, and to whet my curiosity about what might yet be possible. Celebration is what I’m after, of my fleeting self on my winding, serendipitous path through the universe. But that is an idea; I’m not after ideas: I want sensory evidence as proof that I am fully alive where I am, when I am.

In a grotto, by the glow of my tallow lamp, I am awestruck by what I find. It is nothing I know or recognize. The patterns are intuitively familiar, but like nothing I have seen before. There are no landscapes with grasses, shrubs, or trees. No sunlight beyond my little lamp. No clouds in the sky. No trickling streams, no birds. Not even rock walls. Nothing is moving, yet the scene seems to gallop through my head. I am sure I hear hooves rushing by, snorts, whinnies, growls. Startled, I look around, but quickly return to the scene just inches in front of my eyes. The essential core of the animate world is here, and I am connected to it and part of it. This is my world. Yes, I feel it, my little life depends on this scene, on these particular beasts—woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, horses, reindeer, bison, bears, stags, lions, ibexes. Without them, I wouldn’t be here in this cave—or anywhere. I never realized it before, but now I climb above my daily grasp of things and join the higher life beyond. These forms give shape to a transcendent grasp of reality, which I can only call spiritual because it is not of my everyday world. I owe every thought and experience to the scene that opens before me deep in the cave of my mind. This, truly, is where I live. In this scene, with these animals. Nothing else matters. This is the ultimate vision, seen by my ultimate self. I have risen; now I can die.

But before I do, I want to register my own presence. I have no votive offerings. Only a small piece of charcoal. What trace of myself can I leave? I have no sense that the patterns before me are drawn by human hands. They are primeval, here before the people came, here after we go. But one before me has made an appropriate gesture in response. A handprint to show he was here—and is still here—has become part of the scene. Intuitively, I bite off a small chunk of charcoal, grind it between my molars, mix it with saliva. Raising my free hand against the cave wall above the back of the horse, I blow black pigment around my pressed hand, leaving, when I take it away, a silhouette of my presence—my hands-on contribution to this magical scene.

Spotted Horse and Handprints

That mental excursion suggests the state of my mind this week when my son and his wife returned from New Mexico and gave me a gift from Bandeliere National Monument near Santa Fe. It was a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing a Native American design which the park service adopted as the emblem of Bandeliere: the four directions (suggesting their totem animals, such as golden eagle, mouse, bear, white buffalo) placed against the face of the sun, with a small handprint in the center—extending toward—as if to touch or bless—the bright solar disc.

Bandeliere Sun with 4 Directions & Handprint

Suddenly I get it. Reaching out in gratitude for the gift of radiant energy that supports life on our planet. No matter in what form it is made manifest—animal, plant, mineral—it is the same energy. Solar radiation. The gift of sunlight that feeds almost all life on Earth. Certainly the life forms we are familiar with, especially those we depend on as our life-support system. 

Cut to Jesus at his last Passover meal breaking bread and drinking wine with his companions. What was it he said? According to Matthew 26.26-29 (New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition):

During supper Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples with the words: ‘Take this and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them with the words: ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

This is my body, this is my blood. These words are in keeping with the symbolism of vegetative renewal that is at the core of the Jesus story. Bread from grain; wine from grapes. Both  miraculously renewing themselves about the time of the vernal equinox and the Passover feast held shortly thereafter. In the rites of Dionysos-Attis-Adonis held at that time of year, seeds were buried in soil held in small baskets, sprinkled with water, and when in three days they sprouted, celebrants cried the local equivalent of “He is risen, he is risen!”

“Palestine is a fertile land,” writes E. O. James in From Cave to Cathedral: Temples and Shrines of Prehistoric, Classical, and Early Christian Times (Praeger, 1965):

Having a temperate climate . . . agriculture flourished, and . . . the people for the most part were peasants with an agricultural economy, dependent largely upon the seasonal sequence as in Mesopotamia.

. . . . Normally in April the hillsides in Galilee are decked with a profusion of wild flowers with the green corn waving in the cool breezes on the fields below, the north especially being ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills . . . a land of oil, olive and honey.’ . . . From the end of May there is constant anxiety about the condition of the grain during the dry season, especially when the seasonal rains are pending. This found expression in a Canaanite myth and ritual of the Tammuz type and a seasonal drama (page 167).

Over thousands of years, Paleolithic hunters morphed into latter-day agriculturalists. Again, in the words of E.O. James (Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, Barnes & Noble, 1961):

As food-gathering dropped more and more into the background until finally it was abandoned, . . . the fertility of the soil and the succession of summer and winter, springtime and harvest, together with the associated pursuits—tilling and ploughing, sowing and reaping—became the centre of interest and of the ritual organization. . . . Nature was no less precarious for the farmer than for the hunter, consequently at the critical seasons an emotional reaction to the prevailing tension called forth a ritual response to ensure success in the food-producing activities at their several stages, and overcome the unpredictable elements in the situation outside human control by natural means. . . . Around this cultus a death and resurrection drama in due course developed (pages 33-34).

The union of Sky-father and Earth-mother symbolized the sacred marriage of spring rains with fertile soil, resulting in the birth of the divine child—manifest in the crops that sustained human life. As W.K.C. Guthrie tells the story in The Greeks and Their Gods (Beacon Press, 1950):

The young god who stands primarily for ‘the whole wet element’ in nature, as Plutarch describes Dionysos—that is, not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants—meets us under different names all over the nearer parts of Asia and in Egypt, as well as in Thrace, as Dionysos, Zalmoxis, Sabazios, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris and many others (page 156).

Whether based on the historical record or the mythic tradition, Jesus-as-portrayed is one representative of that distinguished company. As other gods did before him, he at first symbolized the hope of seasonal renewal to early farmers at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Very much an essential link in the chain from upper Paleolithic cave art to today’s fascination with the one-time offer of eternal life, Jesus was swept into high office on the reputation of his distinguished predecessors. But the organized church wasn’t satisfied with merely seasonal renewal. It wanted an all-time guarantee of life everlasting so that all we need do is die—and we will be born not just again but forever. Nothing short of eternity will do. No problem—as long as our indulgences are paid for in advance.

In focusing on the mythic symbol himself instead of the vital seasonal renewal Jesus initially symbolized, the Roman church cut itself off from its roots in Earth’s annual cycles of vegetation, disparaging the worshipping of such cycles as pagan and heretical—even though they provided the experiential grounds of its own metaphorical teachings. The priesthood was looking St. Peter's Basilica, Romeafter itself by centralizing its authority in urban basilicas—great stone galleries much like caves built aboveground. It proved far easier to manage abstract symbols from such central edifices than to engage widely dispersed farmers tending herds and tilling rural fields—those on the forefront of belief, but who were not within easy reach from comfortable apartments in the city.

When Episcopal priest John A. Sanford wrote in The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings (Lippincott, 1970), “We have . . . in Jesus of Nazareth the paradigm of the whole person, the prototype of all human development,” he makes clear that he is speaking of an idealized concept of a perfect man, not any person who might actually have lived. Leaving the faithful yearning to connect with the living force that provides for them in producing the crops and herds they actually eat to gain nourishment for bodies that sweat, get sick, grow old, and fail, not with some idealized exemplar whose body and blood they might pretend to ingest as a ritualized diet for the soul. No calories, true, but no real nutrients for the spirit either. Leaving seasonal renewal out of the picture, church dogma became a hollow conceit taken on faith, not in the light of actual experience.

Of lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, E. O. James writes of one deity who stayed in touch with the people, a deity who provided the foil of anathema to orthodox teachings throughout much of Hebrew and Christian scripture:

Once Prince Baal “became ‘the lord of the furrows of the field’ responsible for the rain and the kindly fruits of the earth, a series of temples were erected in his honour in Palestine and Syria in and after the fourteenth century B.C.” (From Cave to Cathedral, page 169).

In nearby Egypt, the ankh was a symbol of eternal life, as the cross subsequently became in Christianity. But one cannot eat symbols; they are food for the disembodied mind. The mind Goddesses of budding flowers, offerings, and happiness, bearing gifts of long life. Fifth Dynasty.embedded in its mortal frame craves a more substantial diet bearing, beyond flavor, both energy and nutrition. It is that diet I am trying to get at in writing this post because such food, indeed, sustains us and makes us who we are. That is the universal food humans require to keep going, no matter where they might live aside from their respective mental caves. Organized religions give us preinterpreted symbols when what we are starved for is raw sensory patterns most strange and wonderful—something to celebrate, not to obey.

It is the role of consciousness to guide us toward such a food supply that we may nourish ourselves—we who are minds in bodies with emotions, senses, thoughts, ideas, judgments, and capacities for action—to make ourselves whole, caring, and wise. That is, to conduct our day-to-day lives in such a way to transcend the limited vessels we have become in order to place our personal handprints as a mark of full witness and approval on life as we actually live it and not the pretend life others would have us lead for their benefit, or we would lead to please them.

I am talking here about leading an original life worthy of our personal uniqueness bestowed on us by our genetic heritage, prenatal life, early experiences, schooling, training, job history, native haunts, and the times in which we live. No two of us are alike. Yet our culture sorts us into crude bins (e.g., True Believers and Heretics) and expects us to behave as we are profiled and sorted by others, regardless of who we know ourselves to be. With the sorry result that we become creatures of our run-of-the-mill culture and not of our unique, individually conscious selves. Instead of consuming more and more goods, we do better to savor the sensory evidence that is ours alone, so to arouse a sense of connectedness with a beautiful world, to stir thankfulness that we are fully present to that world, and to activate primal values to prove we are fully engaged and alive. In short, we want to reach up and blow a handprint from inside our minds onto the only world that will take us just as we are, adding our personal energy and fullness to the universe of all being.

I am aiming for transcendence here. A jolt of energy-releasing transcendence lifting us into that true and higher life binding us to all that is—principally to the Earth, our only home in the darkness of space, and to all of Earth’s peoples of every tribe—that’s what I’m writing about. Is that too much to ask or even contemplate? In spite of our frailty, we can reach that high if we choose to enter the cave of our minds and keep trending toward that goal. We all know more than our credentials seem to warrant, in very personal ways that build on our unique perspectives instead of denying or denigrating them. Our value on Earth lies precisely in our gifts to one another of our personal uniqueness, not our assumed sameness with everyone else. Lives suitable to our heritage and experience cannot be bought off the shelf. We have to tailor them from the scraps we are given, and keep sewing for the rest of our lives. Transcendence is that easy—and that hard.

I will end with an item lifted from an e-mail my brother sent me today:

Re Time Magazine in the dentist’s office [see Reflection 198: Of Heroics & Aesthetics]:  I remember covering a symposium on Canadian art in Washington DC and hearing the director of the Innuit Gallery in Toronto say, ‘There’s a communications satellite in the sky now beaming down American television on them [Eskimos] and in one generation the spiritual content of their artwork is going to be gone.’ Perhaps no single sentence I ever heard in my entire life depressed me as much as this one. I did the only thing I could—bought a piece of Eskimo sculpture and two prints before that happened.

Hunting FamilyWalrusesMary Igiu, People of the Sea 

 

 

Your Handprint in This space