To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

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(Copyright © 2010)

I’ve been posting this blog since early October 2008. My original plan was to update my thinking about consciousness, which I’d first explored when writing my dissertation in 1980-1982 at Boston University’s School of Education. In the interim, I had moved to Maine from the Boston area, and revitalized my relationship with the natural world. In the process, I learned a great deal about my natural self, and about natural consciousness as opposed to the more scholarly, culturally-approved variety taught in schools. It has taken me over twenty-five years to strip academic mannerisms and bad habits from my thinking. That done, feeling human again, I took up blogging to gain a fresh perspective on consciousness, not as it is supposed to be, but as it actually reveals itself in my mind.

When I began blogging, I knew very little about how to go about it. I haven’t learned much about blogging along the way because I haven’t really been blogging. I consider myself a terrible blogger because I’m long-winded and far from topical. I don’t pick up on events in Washington so much as in my head—whatever occurs to me. Which is the point of my blog—to serve as a kind of diary for my life reflections. One post leading to another (or not leading anywhere), I follow what comes to my mind—which reveals the irrational connections and associations my mind actually makes when I sit down to write. I blog about things few others see because that is the nature of my mind in particular, and the human mind in general. Each of us abides on her own private planet.

My initial aim in blogging was to update thoughts I’d had in writing my dissertation twenty-eight years ago, but I quickly found I wasn’t in that place any more. I was more interested in discovering what I didn’t know than rehashing what I already did. Nothing is more tiresome than going over the same old ground again and again, trying to find new ways to say the same old thing. Speaking of death watches, that’s a sure sign you’re watching over your own demise. If I’m not making new discoveries every day, what’s the point of my using up Earth’s precious resources just to stay alive so I can play solitaire?

I converted this blog into a voyage of discovery, and posted whatever I found exciting and challenging at the time I sat down to write. I didn’t resort to an outline because that would imply I knew where I was going. Instead, I wanted to get wherever my series of reflections would take me, then look around to find out where I was.

That’s an apt description of how I lead my life. I’ve just finished a 70-slide PowerPoint on the 90% eelgrass dieback in Taunton Bay in 2001. It took me eight years to put it together because I used it as a vehicle of discovery—my personal spaceship headed into the future toward planet Wherever. Well, that’s just where I found myself when I opened the hatch. After reflecting on the various aspects of the dieback, and the details fit a coherent pattern, I knew I was there. Here’s what I wrote about my methodology in the abstract of my presentation at the New England Estuarine Research Society’s upcoming meeting in St. Andrews, New Brunswick:

This is not a scientific study in the traditional sense so much as an experiential exploration relying heavily on human consciousness to match its characterizations and understanding to patterns it perceives in sensory phenomena. When the balance in awareness is judged to be appropriate to the problematic situation, the resulting conclusion about the cause of the dieback is more a product of aesthetic approval of cohesiveness than rigorous statistical analysis.

Some people might say I am talking nonsense, but that’s a good example of my private planet sending signals into space to see if there’s anybody out there. Which is a pretty fair description of how we go about trying to reach people who might understand us so we feel we’re not just talking to ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point of having tongues, teeth, and lips, and making all this noise?

Or of typing away at computers and posting blogs? What is it, exactly, the Internet allows us to do that we couldn’t do in the old days B.C.—before computers? These days we certainly do more of it faster—whatever it is. It’s whatever all those folks walking and driving along are doing with their whole minds devoted to not being where their bodies are because they’re so busy twittering or gabbing on cell phones. They’re doing what I’m doing writing this blog—living in their heads where the action is. We can’t tell the difference between physical and mental reality, so come to think that whatever crosses our minds is as real as it gets. It’s not that we’re crazy, it’s that everybody’s crazy and always has been since the first ape walked upright. We think of our personal planet as terra firma, and all those extraterrestrials from other planets are misguided pretenders, wild beasts, or infidels.

Which is pretty much the message my life has impressed upon me, and I’m trying to deal with in this blog that I’ve made the central focus of my life. I’ve got to have a little talk with myself, just between me and me. Here I am in my 193rd post trying to pull it all together as a coherent project to see what I’ve learned. That’s what life is, an opportunity to learn what’s going on, and the role I play in the process. I am none other than Peter Mark Roget determined to get his thesaurus in order as his contribution to posterity before he dies.

I just now came across a sentence I wrote at the head of a yellow pad while working on Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness: “We characterize situations in such a way that we relate to them by preserving our sense of self.” That way, we stay who we are, no matter what. Consciousness is all about self-preservation, about inventing a future to ensure we stay the same no matter how much our surroundings may change. A Post-it note stuck on the pad says “family, preschool, early childhood education.” That’s where we start. Exploring who I am, I keep coming across who I was as the leading character of my early life. My belly button hints at an even earlier life in the womb. Those formative months in my original matrix was the slow-motion big bang that led not only to my own conscious sense of self, but to the imaginary planet I wrap myself in as the so-called real world.

At the end of last night’s meeting, a frustrated fisherman looked like she was going to cry, then said through taut lips something to the effect, ‘I just realized that I’m the only one here trying to make a living and every one in this room is trying to keep me from doing that.’ Looking into her face, I saw her child self (in me) accusing her elder brothers (in me) of picking on the essential her (in me).

She was sending signals from her planet, which I interpreted in such a way to preserve my self-identity on my own planet. So do we relate one to another.

That’s what this blog is about, interplanetary communication. There’s no escaping it. To be heard, we all must address it—me on my planet, you on yours, Peter Mark Roget on his, Emily Dickinson on hers. The notion of “free speech” makes it sound easy—all we have to do is open our mouths and say whatever comes to mind. But if we want to count ourselves in the same solar system, there’s way more to it than that. I now see that “way more” as the point of our respectively being here with, and reaching out to, one another. Making that extra effort is the topic of this blog.

So that’s why I’m looking for a vocabulary that will allow my consciousness to speak with your consciousness. The words we inherit from our respective cultures are based on the assumption that we live in—and have equal access to—the same physical world. Which I don’t think accurately describes our true situation. If, from the outset, we don’t account for our unique personal identities and outlooks on what is real, then we will never be able to account for or address the true source of the general discord and unhappiness so rampant in what we experience of today’s world. Which makes it far easier to blame everyone other than ourselves for contributing to the problem.

We need new ways of looking at and talking about world situations from inside personal consciousness itself, not as we do now as if they were somehow external to ourselves. John Weir gave us percept language—the “you in me” and the “me in you”—to help us deal with personal relationships. That is, to create a framework for reporting on situations from our disparate perspectives. But we need a complete overhaul of the language we learned at our mother’s breast if we are to deal with people who learned other languages at other breasts. Is such a universal language of consciousness possible? Having come this far in 193 posts, I believe it is. For starters, here are thirty-seven words I have tried (or intended) to use meaningfully in this blog:

  1. Attention—the act of reaching out with full awareness
  2. Arousal—one’s level of biological excitation
  3. Expectancy—the view ahead of what might happen
  4. Action—engaging the world, the upshot of consciousness
  5. Acting in the world—an ongoing sequence of action
  6. Making ourselves happen—inventing the future
  7. Engagement—a flow of behavioral give and sensory take
  8. Loop of Engagement—acting and perceiving in the now
  9. Planning—figuring how to reach a desired goal
  10. Perception—the parade of patterns in sensory awareness
  11. Salience—the quality of being noticeable
  12. Perspective—one’s outlook within a particular situation
  13. Memory—residue of living a life
  14. Conceptual memory—ideas useful in many situations
  15. Episodic memory—mental replay of life-changing events
  16. Categorization—fitting concepts to percepts, & vice versa
  17. Integrity—Consciousness as a functional system
  18. Coherence—All of consciousness working together
  19. Judgment—what seems appropriate in a given situation
  20. Intentionality—habitual categorizations
  21. Meaning—achieving parity of percept with concept
  22. Idiom of being in the world—system of cultural belief
  23. Self—seat of biological values; the basic unit of survival
  24. Values—sex, food, sleep, health, shelter, safety, etc.
  25. Valence—positive, negative, or neutral regard
  26. Reflexive consciousness—introspection
  27. Assumption—unexamined belief
  28. Attitude—bias or emotional coloring of behavior
  29. Dream—consciousness without action or perception
  30. Aesthetic—whole consciousness in all its parts
  31. Emotion—hormonal coloring of awareness
  32. Feeling—self-awareness of attitude
  33. Motivation—driving urge to deliberate action
  34. Project—consciousness dedicated to achieving a goal
  35. Situation—an occasion for active consciousness
  36. Culture—the fitting of individuals to their surroundings
  37. Future-building—the point of consciousness

If there were to be a final exam for this blog, it might consist of identifying instances in which a few such terms are found to be meaningful to or relevant in your own inner life. That would be a test of the usefulness of what I have been blogging about. If they—such terms—are not applicable to your case, then I have been writing more for myself than for you. Leaving you free, as always, to create your own blog and live your own life.

I have had enough of living in a world where Israelis and Palestinians, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor make a display of not being able to talk, work, or live with one another. Which requires me to critique the way we do business as usual in today’s world. I sincerely believe that throwing grenades, stones, or epithets at each other is a sure sign we are not taking responsibility for our own ignorance of how the world really works. My conceit is that I am onto something in writing about consciousness inside-out. Something profoundly important in providing a new perspective for viewing our relationship with a world that is unknowable in and of itself apart from our personal outlook upon it. I want fishermen and eaters of fish to be able to carry on a sensible discussion that is meaningful to both sides in more-or-less the same way. That’s why I am working on this project week by week, post after post. I thought you ought to know. Particularly if you live in somewhat the same world on a planet similar to mine.

We might as well fly as high as we can

 

(Copyright © 2010)

What I was getting at in my last post was the common origin of two different urges, the urge to belief and the urge to discovery. If, then, religion and science are both born of awe before the wondrous order of the universe, how is it they so completely diverge? Indeed, one treads the path of convinced opinion and absolute authority, the other the path of doubt and experimentation. Each characterizes the same impetus from a point of view diametrically opposite the other, leading to disparate approaches to experience, incommensurate methods, and incompatible conclusions concerning the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Yet both claim to be driven by the same urge—the urge to truth.

How can this be? What is it about the conscious mind that allows two grand institutions to pursue identical goals by such different—and mutually exclusive—routes, the route of faith-based conviction and the route of experimentation?

By singling out these two I do not mean to imply there are no other routes to truth. There is also the legal route, the political, the economic, the historical, the ethical, or the aesthetic, to name a few that spring to mind. But here I will focus on the religious and scientific aspects of consciousness as examples to suggest how differences between those other aspects might arise. In each mental system or discipline, we must look to the assumptions, methods, languages, great thinkers and practitioners, persistent issues, tools, accomplishments, among other factors bearing on it as a pathway to truth. That is more than I can take on in this post, so I will limit myself to a brief look at a few select aspects of mind in the instance of religion and science.

Overall, I would say that religion works deductively in applying general principles to specific instances, whereas science works the other way round inductively, proceeding from specific instances to whatever principles may apply. That is, religion looks upon the world with answers or foregone conclusions in mind, seeking questions to exemplify what is already known. Science on the other hand looks upon the world with true curiosity about how the world works, and attempts to derive theories that answer to commonalities detected in various concrete phenomena. Religion is instructional or doctrinal in applying prior belief to here-and-now experience; science experimental in deriving theories from actual events.

Religion looks from the familiar or recorded past to the unknown future, relying extensively on conceptual memory and sacred texts to provide a basis for prophecy. Science also looks toward the future, but from the here and now, venturing predictions, paying careful attention to whether they are borne out or not. Prophecy is used to justify prior belief; prediction is used to discover whether or not belief is justified.

Thinking is listening to yourself before you say anything out loud. Religious thought broadcasts prior conclusions onto world events as they unfold; scientific thought casts questions onto the world, then attends to the world’s response. Religion’s goal is the spread of true belief and conformity; science’s goal is independent discovery of truth to expand what is known. Religion suppresses or avoids surprises; science welcomes them. That is, the religious approach is to assimilate new experience to preexisting mental structures; the scientific approach is to expand or alter mental structures in order to accommodate new information.

I offer this heavy-handed cartoon of some of the essential differences between religion and science to illustrate two wholly divergent strategies derived from the same compelling experience of the unknown as exemplified by early peoples’ awe and wonder upon observing the pageant of wheeling stars and wandering planets in times when night skies were clearer and darker than they are in modern experience. I am saying that the urges to both science and religion stem from similar experiences of the universe, but via two different routes or strategies for dealing with the awesome and unknown. The urge to religion relies heavily on explaining or categorizing the universe as the work of one or more superhuman(s) of fearsome power and authority as projected outward from the human mind; the urge to science starts with humility before the unknown, relying more on curiosity, experiment, and  discovery in describing aspects of the universe in terms humans can grasp.

Think of Isaac Newton in his garden (as the story goes) at dusk, perhaps looking upon both an apple on a bough and the full moon rising above the horizon in the distance, apple and moon appearing roughly the same size from his point of view. Abruptly, the apple falls straight to the ground below. Which raises the thought in Newton’s mind, “Why doesn’t the moon likewise fall out of the sky?” And then the realization, “Indeed, the moon is falling! But because it is orbiting the Earth, it is propelled not in a straight line into space, but along its orbital path at the same time Earth draws it to itself, with the result that it perpetually falls both toward us and around us, thus keeping the same distance from us as it does fall.” In some such way did the theory of gravitation emerge in the human mind as a result of an inquiring attitude toward personal experience. No phenomenon was safe from such an approach as would project questions instead of answers onto the universe, in hopes the universe would reveal its secrets directly through its own lawful acts.

Or some such scenario. In contrast, consider Paul of Tarsus writing an epistle to the Romans in which, in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong:

After arguing that the righteous live by faith, Paul develops a strange line of reasoning designed to show that God has revealed himself to all people through the creation. Then he goes on to say that those who do not discern the truth of God through creation and thus do not worship God properly are, as their punishment, given over to lust, iniquity and the misuse of their bodies among themselves (Preface, The Letters of Paul, Penguin Putnam, Riverhead Books, 1998, my italics).

Here we are not in any such place as Newton’s garden, but are in the mind of Paul as he writes to the faithful in Rome, a city  he never had visited, concerning the gospel of Christ:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written. The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. . . . Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: . . . For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who, knowing the judgment of god, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Romans 1: 17-20, 24, 26-32, original italics).

 Thus it is written. As others have maintained that Haiti and New Orleans have been punished by God for their evil ways, or that destroying infidels by blowing themselves up in their midst will earn Jihadis a secure place in heaven. Picture children—boys—rocking back and forth over the Qur’an in a Wahhabi school in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, memorizing the text as the ultimate authority by which they are to live—and to die. Picture children in American schools, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to a piece of striped cloth, emblem of a nation exporting chaos, greed, and death to those who do not share its worldview.

Looking to the past is not all bad, nor to the future all good. Religions pay great attention to ethics and how life is to be lived; scientists develop ever more sinister weapons of mass destruction in the name of national defense. Fear is not rational. It seems easier to ring ourselves with missiles than calm the fears of our neighbors and ourselves. Anxiety, suspicion, fear, and anger lead both theologians and scientists to think terrible thoughts and do frightful things. A latent terrorist lurks in the shadows within every human mind.

And cultural influences can so alter the realities of our lives that the individual will to survive can be overwhelmed by the will to die for any common cause perceived to be just. Over 55 million people were killed during the Second World War—each and every one of them for a cause thought at one time by one side or another to be self-evidently righteous. The siege of Stalingrad, firebombing of Dresden, gassing of Jews, nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all made tactical sense to those with power and authority to carry them out.

So I do not intend to paint every one of the faithful as a reactionary incapable of creative thought, or of the curious as a selfless servant of reason. Being human, all are driven by biological values that color every situation according to their personal palette, as well as by the artistic taste of the culture which informs their every act.

But I do intend to give the impression that religion and science create different worlds for their followers, and if those worlds complement each other to a degree, they also serve to under-mine each other more than create an atmosphere of mutual respect. We need look no farther than to the partisan roilings in Washington for a blatant example of self-righteous creationists in deadlock with curious and experimental evolutionists over who is to control the destiny of America and the world. In the Islamic sphere, the same split is evident, as it is in China, and everywhere else.

How we train our children to employ their minds is crucial to human survival on planet Earth. Whether of a religious or scientific bent, as adults every one of us needs to find eternal truths to believe in, while at the same time remaining open to new insights and discoveries as the world changes before our eyes. That is, we can’t develop one faculty for revealed truths to the exclusion of open experimentation, or vice versa. We need to explore both capacities to their fullest extent in every person. As it is now, we become caricatures of ourselves by siding with one mindset or the other, not celebrating the fact that of the nearly seven billion people on Earth, each is unique, so dismissing all but the few who are more-or-less similar to ourselves. That is the height of ignorance, foolishness, pride, and arrogance. If our upbringing—both formal and otherwise—can do no better than that, then our families, schools, social institutions, and governments are failing us utterly.

The Future Is Now

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Extreme sports are the norm among those who feel they have to prove themselves. These days, walking is about as boring as weak tea or rice pudding. But in his time, Henry David Thoreau made walking the equivalent of an extreme sport. In “Walking” in his posthumously published book of essays, Excursions (Houghton Mifflin, 1893, originally published 1863), he says this: 

We should go forth on the shortest walk . . . in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk. (Page 252f.)

Bungee jumping or hang gliding off a cliff, maybe—but walking? What these activities share if Thoreau could have compared them is freedom. People in every age have made sacrifices and taken risks to be free in living their lives. We all know the feeling of getting away from our troubles, duties, and responsibilities for a time. Freefalling through the air can take you there, and walking through the right terrain can as well. Not walking to reach a set destination, but walking with a free spirit, which is what Thoreau had in mind:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. (Page 254.)

That kind of walking frees consciousness to follow its own course without distraction. To engage the landscape out of interest and excitement, not necessity. Being free opens the way to adventure and discovery, which is what Thoreau sought on his jaunts:

Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farm-house which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey [in western Africa]. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (Page 259.)

Here walking is used to expand consciousness by exploring the limits of personal experience in such a way to achieve resonance with all that the landscape has to offer over the course of a lifetime. That, now, is walking. Walking as an extension of the mind, as a mutual engagement between consciousness and its place on Earth in its time. Can anything be more exciting, demanding, or rewarding than that?

One Saturday in June, to make a point of walking, not driving, I joined two friends in walking a little over a mile and a half along Norway Drive to reach the site of a day-long retreat—and then back again that evening:

We pass by Hamilton Pond where we meet three snapping turtles digging nests in roadside sand. Lupine, buttercups, iris, and daylilies bloom all along the way; cow lilies are just coming on. A female black duck crosses the road heading for the pond, followed by a single duckling; they sail off through reflections of pine, spruce, and birch across the cove. In roadside marshes, bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds pour out liquid duets. Three turkey vultures sweep circles through blue sky. On the return walk, we gape at a bald eagle atop a tall spruce. A pair of flycatchers alight on a pondside bush. Slanting sunrays on green foliage, flowers, light winds, clear air, birdsong, good friends—all add to far more than an experiment in cutting our carbon footprints: it is a celebration of ambulatory life itself. What are we doing driving along listening to CDs or the radio when we could be coursing along the footpaths of the Earth!

We commonly believe we have to be fully employed to survive. Every act must contribute to the economy—our modern-day god. But Thoreau’s point in Walden is that the human economy is an aberration of nature which turns life into drudgery—as if drudgery were a virtue. No wonder he steers clear of the cultural wonders of his day in taking his walks.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (Page 260.)

Freedom for Thoreau, then, is freedom from distraction by what many take to be the essence of civil affairs. Imagine being free from the news of the day, from All Things Considered, say—from stock prices, political posturing, the fraught lives of celebrities, from glamour and glitz and hype and spin and the rest of the distractions we waste our lives attending to in great detail so we can achieve the required degree of emptiness in time to die. If I really want to scare myself, I think of the horde honking and waving to get my attention so I can devote precious energy and awareness to their concerns and not mine. I’m with Thoreau in his take on walking: 

In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man. (Page 261.)

Exactly, we pride ourselves on blowing smoke rings as if we didn’t have worthier things to do with our lives. The most recent presidential primaries and campaign went on for two years! Two years in the lives of 300 million people represent a heap of Earth’s energy spent trying to affect the outcome of a single day of voting in one nation. We could have gone on a lot of walks in that time and ended up our own persons knowing exactly where we were and what we stood for, not mere constituents of one party or another—elephants or jackasses.

What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. (Page 265.)

That’s what I’m searching to discover in this blog, that “subtle magnetism in Nature” that provides proper guidance if only we would attend to it inwardly, not outwardly. That sense of direction wise men and women have steered by since beginning times. Every now and then I sense it strongly, that pull to pay attention to what is truly important. And do my best to follow that pull wherever it leads because it is the most important clue consciousness can provide about the meaning and purpose of life. Everything about us is “of” nature, after all. We are natural beings from a long line of natural beings. It is fitting for us to walk in nature to ensure our current state of nature can engage its proper companions.

We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does no yet exist distinctly in our idea. (Page 265.)

From my perspective, consciousness is not devoted solely to the ideal but is far larger in being experiential to the max. That is, besides cognition, it embraces every aspect of emotional, imaginative, and sensory life. I’d say here Thoreau’s transcendentalism may be getting in the way by crediting guidance to intuitive perception of “higher laws” as if they existed apart from personal consciousness. For myself, I believe the human mind is the great organizer and, given sufficient experience to chew on, is fully capable of finding its own way without the tug of external magnetism, so-called. When our minds are clouded, the problem often comes down to being distracted by other minds with other agendas made evident and insistent through the culture we live in. How are the greedy to profit if we follow our own star as our own man and woman? I love to travel through the fullness of my experience, as Thoreau did of his. He was a native explorer of two worlds at once, both inner and outer in balanced relationship. 

It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. (Page 266f.)

Into the wilderness of his personal consciousness, that is, in preference to the civilized world of the city other men had built for themselves. Walking, for Thoreau, frees him from “all worldly engagements.” It offers the journey of self-exploration leading to self-discovery and the hard-won freedom of being himself. In the city, this is sometimes painted as escapism into the interior. But look what came in Thoreau’s case from such a personal journey: works such as Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, Excursions, as well as The Journal. Only one person could have written them. We are fortunate he insisted on being free to walk his own path.

We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure (Page 267.)

If we do not pursue that adventure, whose life are we living? Not our own, surely. No, we live the life of the “good citizen.” The end of selfless living is working for someone else, which is a better bargain for one than the other. Are we here to support Microsoft, Coca Cola, General Motors, and various governing bodies, or to be ourselves to the hilt? If we drive, we will go where our vehicles take us on roads paved by the state; if we walk, we will end up making our way cross-lots and arriving as free men and women.

Make our own way—that’s exactly what consciousness has evolved to enable us to do. Note carefully: each of us has the equipment. There is no excuse for not using it. We are born navigators and walkers. If in wheelchairs, we are free to engage others in helping us travel. My conclusion regarding running low on oil is it is better we not search for substitutes but learn to go on our own at last. That is, to discover our own journeys and not follow the official map too closely. Consciousness and intuition will guide us, feet and legs go the distance. Cities will become human again, carbon footprints shrink. And the rewards will not go to others but will accrue to us precisely to the extent we move ourselves forward.

Martin Luther King Jr.-72

 

Reflection 60: Discovery

February 6, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

From ninth grade, I still remember the shock I got when teachers in two different classes talked about the same thing. In social studies we were studying map projections. One day, the difference between Mercator and conic projections came up. It was a great class because I suddenly realized there was no way to map the surface of a sphere onto a flat plane without distorting or doing violence to the image. Several periods later, in geometry, the teacher showed on the blackboard how lines projected from the center of a circle onto a straight line would represent equal sectors of the circle by different lengths on the line. She gave Mercator projection as an example. So that’s why Greenland always looks so big. Eureka! Classes in school didn’t exist in a vacuum. They could be about the same world as seen from different points of view. I always assumed they were separated by some universal law. I don’t think I have ever been more excited by classroom learning. It wasn’t something I was taught, it was something I discovered on my own, as if by accident.

 

Three cheers for serendipity. Accidental or coincidental learning is powerful stuff. There’s no mad scientist deliberately trying to pair the sound from the loudspeaker with an electric shock soon to come. Since nobody arranged for it to happen, it has to be true. At least that’s how it seems.

 

I spend hours trying to dope out my own consciousness. Reading about lateral and orbital prefrontal connections with the anterior cingulate cortex, how the amygdala fits in, the hippocampus, the senses, bodily feedback—all connected to motor areas that will implement decisions with the precision they deserve.

 

I consult results from animal research, clinical studies of brain damage in humans, functional neuroimaging, and my particular method—introspection of my own conscious life, trying to keep up with what my mind has to show me.

 

Finally, I come to the conclusion that consciousness is shaped by the situations in which it emerges so resultant actions will be more-or-less appropriate to the specific conditions that apply. I carry the idea around in the back of my mind that consciousness has got to be situationally relevant. Whatever areas of the brain are involved, they have to work together in representing current situations, detailing the factors involved, the locales, how I feel about things, my relevant experience, options, motivation, what I hope to achieve—all in direct contact with motor planning areas so that once I decide what to do, I can make my move with some confidence that it will suit the occasion. I am on the outlook for confirmation that I am on the right track. Then I read this:

 

Our results suggest that the [anterior cingulate cortex] integrates inputs from other emotion-related areas and frontal cortex, and sends the information to motor executive centers to behave appropriately in a variety of specific motivational or emotional contexts.[A]

 

Reading those words, I say, “Yes, that’s got to be right. Prefrontal cortex, emotion, motivation, leading to action suitable to the situation—I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s got to be right.” For monkeys, at least. Actually, I don’t even know if it’s right for monkeys, but for human’s it’s got to be true. At least that’s how I feel. I always come down from such surety after a while and get on with my work. Then, further along in Gazzaniga, I come across this:

 

Thus, posterior cingulate and adjacent precuneus cortex can be hypothesized as a region of the brain associated with the continuous gathering of information about the world around us.[B]

 

This is not dealing with the sensory world of rats or monkeys, this is a study done with humans. Not the anterior cingulate this time, but close to it. Tying sensory input into the mix. Making the situation (world around us) more explicit. Another piece of the puzzle fits into place. Does the posterior cingulate in the parietal lobe feed sensory information to the anterior cingulate in the frontal lobe next door? I assume it does, and probably vice versa, but I haven’t found out for sure.

 

That’s how it goes—using every resource available, you just have to keep pressing into the mystery ahead. The trick is not leaping to conclusions but staying open. One day your social studies and math teachers will strike a chord in your brain, and you’ll be on your way. No one can do it for you. Discovering the ins and outs of your own consciousness is the adventure of a lifetime.

 


[A] Ono, Taketoshi, and Hisao Nishijo. Neurophysiological Basis of Emotion in Primates: Neuronal Responses in the Monkey Amygdala and Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Pages 1099-1114 in Gazzaniga, Michael S., Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neurosciences, Second Edition. The MIT Press, 2000, page 1111.

[B] Raichle, Marcus E. The Neural Correlates of Consciousness: An Analysis of Cognitive Skill Learning. Pages 1305-1318. Same source as above, page 1315.

 

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Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

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