(Copyright © 2009)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I once spoke at a wedding, advising those assembled to lead an original life. I was addressing the happy couple, but spread the word more broadly. The couple had a child in short order, but she soon found out he was a druggie and of little use, so she divorced him. It is harder to be original when coupled with a demanding other than by yourself. Even so, it is never easy to deliberately and consciously live your own life.

 

In Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Which I wholeheartedly endorse. At first as well as last, your consciousness is your most valuable possession. Let others lead their lives while you tend to yours. They will be full of advice as to how you should go about it. Listen, but then trust your own judgment and inspiration. Yes, you will make mistakes, but the main thing to be sure of is they are your own mistakes so there’s no one else to blame. That way your learning will belong to you.

 

Which sounds like a retread of a moral tract worn smooth. But I intend it as a spur to creativity, not conformity. Our value to one another is in our originality, not our sameness. If we were composed of interchangeable parts, we would be robots and live interchangeable lives. But that’s not how it is. Each of us has something to add to the world. For proof, look to the blogosphere. All those voices in the wilderness, no two alike. Offering their wares, thoughts, opinions, feelings—whatever they care about. To dismiss them is to miss the point. They are trying to make it happen, whatever it is. Every blogger has his or her private agenda. Blogs are like sunspots: they erupt from the inside.

Which is why we are a mass of damp protoplasm run through with strands of sinew and muscle wrapped around a core of consciousness and unconsciousness. We are here to make things happen in our current situation, the circumstances that in practical terms make up our personal world. The world that counts for us because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.

In a world where others usually make things happen to us, how do we do that—make things happen inside-out? By using consciousness to our advantage. By pushing our mental worlds as far as they can go in framing our projects, whatever they may be. That is, laying the groundwork. Starting with the known and familiar of firsthand experience and heading toward the unknown and strange. Then letting go, trusting our mysterious unconscious to show us the way from there.

That is how I have written every blog in this series. I start with a small hunch or smattering of experience, and head out from there. I seldom know where I am going. There’s no outline, not even a goal. But I am heading somewhere for sure; it’s just I don’t yet realize my own destination. By jotting down keywords and phrases, then concentrating on filling in the gaps along the way, I get somewhere at least. Then I back off and let my other half take over—my unconscious mind. It already knows where I’m heading and helps me along, extending and completing what consciousness has been able to do on its own.

Consciousness and unconsciousness are flip sides of the same self. We are familiar with one; the other we don’t know, even though they are both flesh of the same flesh. The two work together, one in full view (on camera), the other in the shadows. You know this full-immersion approach is working once your project bubbles over into your dreams and dreamlike thoughts at 3:00 a.m. You’ve got to consciously prime the pump by throwing yourself into the project. Then let your unconscious carry you from there. One of life’s greatest discoveries is that it always will.

Before the Cuban missile crisis came to a head in October 1962, JFK carried on a secret, frank—and very unofficial—correspondence with Russian Premier Khrushchev, the two leaders comparing notes on their visions for what amounted to the future of the world. It was the mutual respect and understanding generated by this exchange that laid the groundwork of trust for the solution to the crisis when Russia removed its missiles from Cuba in exchange for removal of US missiles from Turkey. Without those backchannel letters that, once made public, outraged the military-industrial power structure so beloved of the CIA, the crisis likely would have festered into World War III and an exchange of nuclear missiles. (The full story is told in James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable, Orbis Books, 2008.)

Our conscious and unconscious minds work as a team, exchanging data and feedback by channels we are completely unaware of—until a full-blown solution is announced. When I wrote during my island retreat in 1986-1988, I would often come to a block, which I took as a hint to go for a hike. Walking on snowshoes through the woods, my attention kept pace with the rhythm of my legs, but I stayed clear of the blockage that send me out. Until, after forty-five minutes, I suddenly saw through the obstacle to the landscape beyond. I just had to give my unconscious mind time to sort through the problem and come up with the answer that lay just out of reach. Which it did, invariably.

Consciousness frames the problem; unconsciousness works it through. If I (my conscious self) does its part, my twin (covert self) will finish the job. That way, I somewhat control my own output. I make conscious suggestions based on experience and research; my silent twin rounds out the whole. Both are in the same loop; I’m the one who knows only half of what’s going on. My unconscious half knows the rest. It’s a great feeling to discover the full picture spreading before me. After my hike, I pick up where I left off as if there’d been no break at all.

You don’t have to hike to give your unconscious time to work. You can listen to music, dance, stretch—any nonstressful activity will do. You can even take a nap or go to sleep. Your unconscious twin will stay at the helm.

The key to living an original life is doing your part the best you can, then trusting your shadow self to carry on while you do something else. You’ve got to prepare, practice, rehearse, mull, write drafts, and so on. There is no way you can avoid doing your share of the work. And doing it again, and again. This is your life; your task is to live it. After a while, you will so internalize what your are striving for that your unconscious self—which is as original as you are—will pitch in and give you a hand.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is get out of the way. That is, forget what others are telling you and listen to what your mind and your body are trying to tell you. As Emerson put it in Self-Reliance: “Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

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Reflection 30: Barack and I

November 29, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

Barack Obama and I make a pretty good team. He handles his end, I handle mine. I’ll start with my end since it’s fresh in my mind.

 

I’ve honed Saturday mornings to a fine routine. Get up, shower, put a week’s dirty clothes in the washer, make breakfast, put clothes in the dryer, read the paper, take clothes out of the dryer, sort and fold, make the bed, blog, go to the post office, make lunch, and so on.

 

This Saturday is different. I get up too late to beat other tenants to the washer. Do breakfast first. I still take eye drops after cataract surgery, so squirt both eyes. Made yogurt last night, so go to take the four quart jars out of the oven (warmed by the oven light), and find one jar has cracked in the night. The bottom of the oven is a pool of milky water. Reaching for paper towels, I knock six plastic water bottles off the shelf where I’d left them in plain view as a reminder to recycle them. Kicking bottles aside, I kneel and sop up the mess. Throwing wet towels toward the wastebasket, I notice flying ants crawling up the wall, a squadron of five. Squish the ants. Notice others on the floor. Squish them, too. Back to the oven. Take more eye drops. Start heating buckwheat for breakfast. Continue kneeling, kicking bottles, sopping, squishing ants. Put broken shards in the sink, rinse, put in drainer to dry so I can recycle them. Eat breakfast. Take the last of this round of drops.

 

Whenever I revert to the standard routine, I don’t have to think about it. I just do it by rote. This particular Saturday my consciousness is in gear the whole time. I am keenly alert, aware even of being aware. I notice that I notice myself noticing. I am blogging as I live the event, separating novel sequences from the standard routine. For the first time appreciating the routine as what it is.

 

Phone rings. It’s Carole. We talk about what to have for dinner, who will bring what. I have rice and broccoli, she turkey leftovers. I tell her about my morning so far. She tells me Barack Obama held three press conferences in three days. He’s really taking charge. The market has noticed and held its own. Meanwhile, Michele asks him if he’s going to take the children to school tomorrow. Sounds a lot like my day. He handles the financial mess, I clean the oven; he takes the kids to school, I kill flying ants. Between the two of us there’s hope. If we all do our part.

 

Such is consciousness. With eyes and ears open, and wits about us, we can plunge into novel situations. Rise above our habitual selves. Handle things our mother’s never told us about.

 

Consciousness is closely related to imagination and creativity. To looking ahead, not back. Thinking outside the box. Rising to the occasion. Doing what needs to be done.

 

Too, I think consciousness is contagious. It takes one person noticing something new, then acting appropriately. Dealing with the problem. That’s called leadership. The rest of us wake up, open our eyes, and see what now seems so obvious but was hidden only yesterday.

 

It’s been a great Saturday so far. Hope is in the air. The sun is shining, the stove is clean, Barack is on top of things. The day isn’t done yet, but we’ve made a good beginning.

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Reflection 9: Creativity

October 20, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

Consciousness is essentially creative. That’s why we have it, to solve problems we didn’t anticipate. If reflexes won’t get us out of our fix, nor habits, nor training, then we’ve got to come up with something else. Something we haven’t tried before. Something new. Consciousness to the rescue!

 

Imagine the difficulty early peoples faced in becoming conversant with the thousand points of light (Saint Exupéry’s phrase) in the night sky (which from his standpoint in the Sahara Desert, might be almost 2,000). Planets could be distinguished by their shifting positions among the fixed stars, and individual stars could be named (Altair, from Arabic, “the bird”; Rigel, from Arabic phrase, “left foot of the central one”; Betelgeuse, from Arabic, “hand of the central one”). The challenge lay in identifying regions of the celestial hemisphere that could be mapped into consciousness.

 

Constellations were invented to solve the problem of making the heavens meaningful to shepherds, travelers, sailors, and other early star gazers, not to mention the early astronomers and geometers who developed techniques for mapping the heavens onto the mind.

 

How did these pioneers tame the wild heavens? Easily, by mapping their minds onto the stars. They made the strange familiar by taking possession of it in terms of widely known and familiar images fit for the task. Nothing too ornate or complex, just basic outlines, like connecting the dots, in this case the dots being points of light. Here is the paradigm of conscious endeavor. We cast our minds upon the stars, and the stars give us back. . . our own minds! By casting old shapes and meanings onto new phenomena, consciousness brings us full circle. We domesticate nature and call it ours (when exactly the reverse is true—we are as wild as the stars because we are made of the same stuff).

 

The modern constellations (or asterisms, from Greek Aster, “star”) divide the celestial sphere into 88 conventionalized regions, each containing thousands of stars when viewed through a telescope. Many appear to us much as they did to the ancients who named them. Cygnus actually looks like a great swan flying overhead, Serpens flows like a snake, Delphinus leaps like a dolphin, Draco twists like a dragon. These creatures in the sky are all seen from the northern hemisphere. Southern constellations were named millennia later, when navigators were more mindful of the looks of their tools than of animals. They gave us Antlia, the air pump; Fornax, the furnace; Norma, the level; Sextans, the sextant; Pyxis, the compass; along with Microscopium and Telescopium.

 

To track the apparent positions of sun, moon, and planets, early astronomers designated their respective locations along the path they traveled against the stars (the zodiac) by calibrating it into twelve more-or-less equal constellations. Many early cultures made their own versions of the zodiac. The western tradition has given us Aries, The Ram; Taurus, The Bull; Gemini, The Twins; Cancer, The Crab; Leo, The Lion; Virgo, The Virgin; Libra, The Scales; Scorpio, The Scorpion; Sagittarius, The Archer; Capricorn, The Horned Goat; Aquarius, The Water-bearer; and Pisces, The Fish.

 

Clearly, these figures are not in the stars themselves but in our heads. Our ancestors put them out there to solve the very real problem of keeping track of the seasons, not only of the year, but of human life. Consciously deifying sun, moon, and planets, early astronomer-priests gave order to the trials of yearly survival in terms representing the will of the gods. Planets were designated angels (Greek angelos, messenger), messengers of the gods, whose decrees could be interpreted from their heavenly positions.

 

Thus casting their conscious minds onto the stars, priests put on robes of great magnificence, as if their words were backed by celestial authority. We still depict many of them with halos of heavenly light. This is one of the most profound examples of conscious minds turning the natural world to their own purposes. Which is exactly how the presidential election of 2008 will be decided on November 4th. Voters will cast their judgment on competing slates of mortal candidates as if one or another were truly qualified to lead the nation from its sea of troubles. Voting is an act of magical thinking, just like seeing lions and dragons in the stars.

 

That’s consciousness for you. Pure magic. Discovering our preferences and pretenses in the world as if they were external to us and we did not author them ourselves. We make it all up as we go along, and call it truth. What could be more creative than that! 

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