Reflection 195: Inaction

April 5, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If the outcome of consciousness is, as I claim, to make things happen (to build a future, to act in relation to a current situation), what are the implications of those times when we are conscious in a given situation—but are unable to follow-through with appropriate action? Think of the young mother who dreams of a career but can’t take time away from childcare to act on her dream. The young man in solitary confinement, with active mind but inactive body. The child who watches TV Saturday mornings and shuttles between  refrigerator, bathroom, and his station on the couch. Think how it feels to wait for a stoplight to turn green, a ticket line to advance, an expected letter to arrive. 

Impatience is a sure sign that consciousness has gotten ahead of our ability to put plans into action. Biding time, waiting our turn, twiddling thumbs to release nervous energy—everyone knows what it’s like to be all wound up with no place to go. C’m-on, let’s move it! Get the lead out. The problem is that when our loop of engagement in a particular situation is delayed or interrupted for some reason beyond our control, we feel frustrated and out of sorts. Our rhythm is broken. If the delay turns into a long one, we become disengaged. Leading to a state of annoyance, despair, or depression.

It is surprising to consider how often we adopt surrogate outlets for activities which may be suppressed for even a short time. Smoking, for instance, chewing gum, grabbing a bite, drinking, or humming can be the result of a conscious urge to “do something” when we are inclined to act but cannot. The tension we feel is the result of an inability to act in an appropriate manner, so we divert that urge into an alternative activity both accessible and acceptable. We move our mouth parts instead of arms or legs. Watching TV, our options for making an appropriate response to what we’re seeing are often severely limited because we can’t enlist the screen in a conversation, argument, fight, or engagement of any sort. Roused to action by the program we’re watching, yet not able to make an appropriate response, we resort to surrogates such as tapping our fingers, picking a scab, scratching our necks—whatever diverts our urge to action to something we can actually do short of throwing a book at the screen or clicking it into oblivion.

Reduced to spectators, as we have been by the one-way, broadcast media since radio was invented, we find ourselves leading double lives having little to do with each other, following the program with our ears or eyes, perhaps, but tapping our fingers or toes to let off some steam. Such a waste of consciousness leads to hard feelings, because we know we’re being manipulated by someone else’s agenda. We get their message, but they can’t get ours. Domination of significant parts of our lives by such one-sided interactions with the media leads to frustration and irritation because we can’t “do anything” to let producers and sponsors know how we feel. Abuse by the media is one of the most common ailments of recent years, a global pandemic of enforced helplessness largely unrecognized for what it is.

The problem is that long-term inaction leads to an incapacity to act at all. If appropriate action is always sidetracked, that is what consciousness learns to do—sidetrack itself. Dissipate its capacities and energies. That is, to chew gum instead of speak truth to power. The freedom to act in light of personal consciousness is the fundamental freedom by which lives are led and civilizations built from the ground up. Freedom of will means nothing if it does not lead to action. Or worse than nothing—to waste and despair. Which is the state of modern America under the heel of corporate personhood with its industrial base shipped abroad, leaving formerly skilled workers stocking shelves at WalMart or smiling behind counters at MacDonalds for paychecks that Thoreau or Mohandas Gandhi couldn’t live on.

Now our schools emphasize concept formation in the earliest grades, neglecting personal sensory experience as if it were not the true foundation of learning to live in the world. Children are now supposed to be objective, not subjective, to live on familiar terms with descriptive and statistical generalizations as replacements for personal experience because schools can deal only with tidy (because largely empty) concepts instead of messy personal stories. Experience, the base of personal judgment and behavior, is earned through engagement with our senses and emotions, not solely our rational minds. It is subjective by nature because consciousness itself is subjective. Unique in each case, there is no such thing as statistical consciousness. Any school system that believes in students collectively rather than individually is teaching to an ideological fiction that cannot exist, a fiction spread across a bell curve so that a young person’s position relative to the mean is more important than who she is or what she can do. Which reduces human characteristics and abilities and histories and experiences to abstract generalizations instead of singling them out as the very qualities which make us who we are.

Schools, that is, train workers, customers, and consumers worthy to become a mass audience of zooids who will do what they are told by their supervisors. Try sitting still in a chair for hours at a time without talking or fidgeting and see if you are capable of original thought at the end of the day. The few outlets allowed include sports, music, theater, dance, and gymnastics—activities based on personal skill and discipline, which should be the center of the curriculum instead of out on the extracurricular fringe. What we learn in school is to stifle our basic urge to action, or to postpone it until classes are over. No wonder we’ve become a nation of media consumers, cubicle sitters, and counter attendants—those are precisely the sorts of non-activities we’re trained to do. As McLuhan said, the medium itself is the message. In schools, the medium is sitting quietly as if something were happening when it’s not. That’s what passes for good behavior and earns you a gold star for citizenship—doing as little as possible without bothering anyone else.

Am I tilting at windmills here, or have I become a professional cynic? Through my lifetime I’ve watched freedom of personal action decay into freedom of inaction to avoid upsetting the neighbors. That’s our modern version of the golden rule—instead of doing unto others we’ve learned the safest guide is to do as little as possible. That way we don’t make waves to get people upset. When we should be marching on the state or national capital, we sit quietly at home watching game shows on TV. Instead of embracing life itself, we’ve raised pretending to live to a high art.

As I see it, we’ve surrendered our personal sovereignty for the sake of comfort and convenience. That is, given up being unique persons to adopt the myth of being like everyone else. Persons act as consciousness leads them; members of the crowd look to their leaders. Think of the expectations we lay on Barack Obama to do our work for us when we could be part of the solution to the nation’s problems by putting our bodies on the line—as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King put their bodies and their lives on the line (both being assassinated for offending those they opposed). The theory we follow is we’ll live better and longer by not taking personal action—as if simply enduring under present conditions were more important than altering those conditions to make a better world for all.

We talk a lot about freedom, but the most basic freedom is the freedom to act, not the freedom to sulk or to hide. What if Martin Luther had never nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg to be seen by parishioners on All Saints Day in 1517? Where would we be but for his taking that stand against the sale of indulgences by which sinners could buy forgiveness for cash instead of confronting themselves? It is possible Christianity in the West would be synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, and the church hierarchy would center our lives on its origins in the priesthood of the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day. Inaction leaves behind it a heritage of what if? what if? what if?

These days we live in an era when chartered corporations have the status of living, breathing persons, and the rights granted to persons by the U.S. Constitution, including the right of free speech, and the spending of money as a variant thereof. That is, corporations can behave as if they were persons and we won’t make too fine a point of the self-evident fact that confounding corporations with persons is a sure sign of mental illness. Why persons? Why not corporations as servants of the people? Protectors of the Earth? Humanitarian institutions? The result of corporate personhood is the mockery of human personhood in that every one of us is diminished by that false categorization. If a distinction is not made between for-profit corporations and individual persons, something very important goes missing from our culture—the realization that persons are fundamentally conscious and can learn through experience while corporations are built structures without minds, and require persons to run them. Persons are persons, corporations are corporations; it makes no sense to extend the rights and abilities of one to the other as if there were no difference between them.

People can act in the world, corporations can’t. It is the people hiding behind corporations who have taken over our country and the rest of the world, acting by charter exclusively in their limited self-interest at the expense of us mortal beings who can’t afford the legal apparatus and deep pockets that corporations use to teach us our place, and keep us there. Tobacco companies, drug companies, agribusiness, the military industry, the power generators, big transportation—these are the corporations who presume to act on behalf of the world’s little people when they do not rise up and act boldly for themselves. Education renders us docile so we do not stand against this takeover of our most basic prerogative—to defend ourselves against hostile aggression.

With wealth concentrated in corporate accounts, and power safe in the hands of highly paid attorneys, corporations are free to manipulate public opinion by foisting whatever image they choose on a gullible public, so we come to accept them as what they pretend to be. Always the good guys, no matter what havoc they wreak in Nigeria, India, Chile, Mexico, or here at home. The playing field is not level. We engage by different rules. Freedom and equality are forgotten values. We can still vote, but it makes little difference because corporate money votes closer to where laws are written and decisions made. Our great ethical systems are stood on their heads—the golden rule, do no harm, equal opportunity, act from love, respect your opponent, democracy, fair play, we’re all equal under the sun. Corporate personhood renders every one of them obsolete because ethical systems are for people, not corporations. Corporations act as they wish as long as they pay their bills and keep the truth to themselves.

Yes, I fling paint with a broad brush in this portrait because I’ve learned that corporations can be counted on to sink to the lowest possible level. One financial crisis after another, one war after another, one takeover after another, one environmental catastrophe after another—we still end up with the same system that victimizes persons but treats corporations as if they were sacred. Even if they go bankrupt, even if they fail utterly, even if the people bail them out.

Action is indeed the upshot of consciousness, appropriate and effective action in the world we live in, even if we can’t make it out very clearly. When our options for action are severely restricted, our basic freedoms to think and act for ourselves become nonexistent. If that goes on long enough, we forget how to express our personal values in what we think and what we do. The game is over. The faceless “they” have won. The ones who pull the levers behind corporate curtains. The ones who make billions of dollars a year while the rest of us scrounge for coins beneath cushions.

All this is no dream. It comes to me through conscious reflection. Engaging the world with my mortal body and mind, this is what I discover. Here is the reality I live in. I have been schooled not to think for myself by sticking to the great thoughts of others, passed off in slogans and party lines. But I can’t help myself. I keep going back to the source of my own experience and digging around to see what I can learn from it. I see now that consciousness, critical judgment, and the ability to act free from interference in my current situation (as best I can make it out)—these are the greatest treasures I possess. If I do not exercise these gifts, I give up being myself. If we do not act for ourselves, that is where we end up—enslaved to others, devoting our actions to serving them.

Is this what we look like?

 

Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Projects are ways to wrap a future around ourselves. I put it that way because the future isn’t a world we are moving toward or into, but a world we make happen for ourselves. It isn’t already prefigured, just waiting for us to come along. It’s something we all have to create for ourselves on foundations we’ve already laid. The craft of consciousness is building a future, of extending a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be. Building a future is a lot like riding a bucking bronco—you’re not sure who’s in charge, but you’re having the ride of a lifetime.

Future-building is often discussed in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, personnel, training, supplies, and equipment, making it sound like war games at West Point. Actually, it’s messier than that because your plans have to fit with those around you, and with events no one can anticipate (such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, droughts). As a result, we tend to work on our futures one small project at a time, thinking more on the scale of cooking dinner or making the bed than winning major battles. Most of us, like alcoholics, are concerned with just getting through the day. We’ll deal with tomorrow when we get to it.

Building a future one small project at a time makes sense because that’s the scale consciousness is best suited for. If the goal is too fuzzy or abstract, it’s more like a dream than anything we can attain by taking a sequence of actual steps. If we can’t visualize it in concrete terms, we probably won’t live long enough to realize our plan. Small is beautiful because it’s attainable. Start by preparing the ground for the first seed. If we can’t plan our garden while walking the dog, it might prove a bigger project than we can handle.

Putting a picture puzzle together is a good example of a doable project. We select which puzzle we want to work on—it has to be an image that appeals to us, with the right number of pieces, or we’ll lose interest. We start by spreading the pieces on a flat surface we can spare for the duration, then turn them face up where we can get at them. We sort them by color, texture, or flat edges; then, beginning with the obvious groupings (such as connecting edge pieces to form a frame), work on fitting them together. As we get into it, we start looking for pieces with individual characteristics—with personalities to match their surroundings. We concentrate on one area at a time, then try linking different areas by building bridges between them. There are always a few notorious pieces we can’t find, but eventually we combine subtle clues of shape, color, texture, size—and everything fits. Mission accomplished.

Except it isn’t that much of a mission because the secret of picture puzzles is that they come with everything we need to do the job—including a picture on the box to show what we’re working toward. Some projects come in kit form like picture puzzles, but the ones we are likely to take on in building a future for ourselves don’t come prepackaged, so are more of a challenge to consciousness. It’s up to us to decide what tools and materials we’ll need, how to gather them, how to use them, in what order, and how to get help when we need it because we’re in over our head. There are a lot of adult education courses that will help us develop the skills we’ll need, and self-help books on just about every kind of project we’ll want to try our hand at.

For me, the interesting side of projects is the mental skills we’ve already acquired in the process of living our particular lives. These provide the underlayment of every job we’re likely to undertake. That is, the projects that make sense to us are apt to be extensions of ones we’ve worked on before. Our trajectories through the universe start in earliest childhood, and by the time we’re in high school their general direction is pretty much set. After that, we may refine our course settings by a few degrees, but largely keep on by exploring territories that feel familiar to us, and offer challenges and opportunities that have meaning because they extend sensitivities and abilities we already possess in latent or rudimentary form.

Projects make sense to us if they arise from life situations we’ve already experienced or are currently engaged in. They don’t gel as projects just out of the blue; our whole life points to them as sensible next steps. Our job is to recognize them as further opportunities for refining or expanding who we are. Single mothers with young children still want to get ahead in life, so they can either seek Mr. Right, or set off to develop their personal skills and earning power because they are not likely to trust another man to shelter them from having to care for themselves and their children. Working, developing job skills, having a social life, and childcare become aspects of whatever projects suggest themselves from their earlier experiences. Perhaps further schooling is a possibility if grandparents, social services, friends, a part-time job, and personal determination combine to create a situation where that makes practical sense.

The chief benefit of life situations is how wonderfully they focus attention on practical details in the here and now. Projects are built from just such details because that is the reality they are meant to address. Projects by nature are more concrete than abstract. They may start as conceptual solutions to one of life’s challenges, but they very quickly get down to the nitty-gritty of how they are to be implemented in the real world. That is, personal motivation is essential to the success of any project we are likely to stick with to the end.

The heart of any project is the loop of engagement by which we act in the world to make ourselves happen in a particular way, then learn from the results how we must refine our skills to act more effectively the next time. That ongoing loop is what we need to attend to in both its active and receptive aspects as the project develops in order to assure personal advancement toward the goal we are bent on achieving in the future we are crafting for ourselves. This is where our fingers meet the rawhide in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is doable precisely because it is what consciousness is given each of us to exercise in meeting the unpredictable challenges life can throw at us. Insects are preprogrammed to survive a limited range of life situations; primates are less set in their ways in order to adapt to the variety of situations they are apt to encounter. Humans are the most adaptable of all species because they can take on special projects in meeting challenges unprecedented throughout their evolution.

The essence of any project is its categorization of the situation from which it emerges, its categorization of the goal to be reached, and its categorization of the means for bridging from the situation to that particular goal. Everything depends on how we see the problem, the solution, and the means linking the two. This is where judgment enters the picture to scan both episodic and conceptual memories in relation to sensory patterns defining the situation in an attempt to map an appropriate understanding onto the situation so that a specific project is suggested as a personal way to meet the demands imposed by the situation. In other words, human judgment interprets the current situation as guided by prior experience, which leads to how the project is structured as an answer to the question raised by the nature of the situation itself. This is the true miracle of the human mind—that it can do this through a series of successively approximate matches between memories and existential situations so that a sensible course of action emerges from the life history of the individuals involved.

If no such course of action readily suggests itself to judgment, cultural input can be sought to see what others would do under like circumstances, what conventional wisdom would recommend, how various experts would proceed. This is where education enters into a project to meet a need an individual can’t meet on his own. Perhaps further training is indicated—formal, informal, or on-the-job. Perhaps, in hopes the situation will go away, a course of therapy might be pursued as an alternative, particularly if the seeker places trust in figures of reputed authority.

Too, a change in perspective might be in order if the seeker feels she may have mischaracterized the situation, or is not looking at it on an appropriate level of discernment. “What would you do in my situation?” she might ask; “Am I overlooking something, or making a mountain of a molehill?”

And, to wrap this up, projects require a certain amount of arousal and personal investment to get and stay underway. Think of the arousal of spectators at football, basketball, or hockey games where the situation changes in the moment: the call is three balls and two strikes with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or the score is tied with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Fans hoot and howl, wave their arms, jump up and down because they see so much riding on the play: they are fully aroused, vigilant, and invested, as if life itself hung in the balance. If the seeker feels not a stab of excitement, fright, or anxiety, then perhaps the project doesn’t really answer her professed need to right the situation at issue. Without passion and arousal, nothing in the world would ever get done because nothing, apparently, needs fixing.

I haven’t mentioned personal, biological values (such as sex, food, drink, shelter, rest, health, strength, knowhow, worthy challenge, order, safety, community, etc.) as essential to projects, but of course they are. Everything we do expresses a variety of biological needs. Even collecting stamps or building ships in bottles provide physical and mental challenges based on detailed engagement with the sensory world, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom in an underutilized mind.

As it is, dinners get cooked and put on the table, term papers get written, gardens planted, vacations taken, degrees granted, cars repaired, babies born, cavities filled, candidates elected (or not), and the future arrives as a new beginning for the world. Opening up opportunities for another round of situations going wrong, wheels requiring reinvention, and new projects getting started because no matter what the future brings, no one will be entirely satisfied with how things have developed, and consciousness can always be counted on to suggest new ways personal situations can be improved.

Things can always be improved.

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Recently, I attended a talk in Hancock, Maine given by William Crain, professor of psychology at CCNY. He spoke on reclaiming childhood, which has been depleted if not lost due to inroads by modern media and demands of modern education, so-called. We are depriving our children, he said, of many of the fundamental benefits of childhood on which their subsequent maturity will depend. Crain touched on childhood arts, play, and sensitivity to nature. A spirited discussion ensued, addressing issues in modern parenting and early education. At one point I found myself saying something to this effect:

What unsupervised outdoor play and exploration stimulates in young children—beyond adventure and discovery—is a sense of personal ease in being one’s self. Confidence and self-assurance flow from owning your own self-directed experience. That is, from pleasing yourself. Which is very different from what happens in schools where teachers dole out praise for desired performance, and children become fully dependent on someone else deciding when they are doing the correct thing the proper way in the right spirit. Pleasing others makes you socially acceptable; pleasing yourself makes you a real person. The two are not the same, and lead to wholly different personalities later in life.

I am reminded of what happened after the Russians lofted Sputnik on October 4, 1957. As a nation we were aghast that the Ruskies had gotten so far ahead of us in space technology. Educators panicked and vowed that the elementary school curriculum had to be juiced up with more math and more science. Set theory became the thing, along with exercises in concept formation. Grade school was given a shot of grad school ideas, and childhood itself was sloughed off as . . . well . . . childish. The result is homework and burdensome backpacks in grade one, but not children who are smarter or any more competent.

Crain’s slides took me back to Depression era days in Hamilton, New York, where I roamed springtime hills in search of runoff flowing from rainfall and melting snow. Using twigs and pebbles, I built canals and dams and boats for hours on end. I suppose it was play, but it was my job at the time—what I did for a living—for I was actively building my life by developing an intuitive sense of flow, gravity, energy, and progression of the seasons. Yes, I came home sopping and muddy—but wiser and more accomplished than when I set out. Happier, too, in being intimately engaged with my native habitat, my particular place on this Earth. My folks had no idea where I’d gone, and didn’t worry about my coming to harm. My father had grown up in rural Vermont, mother in coastal Maine. After-school surveillance wasn’t an issue. True, they didn’t know where I was, but they understood nonetheless.

As I got a little older, my experiential approach to hydrology soon led to major discoveries in paleontology. It made sense to go home by following the intermittent streams I played in as they joined other streams coming off the slopes, growing larger, cutting channels then gullies into the local bedrock, rushing toward the valley where I lived. From time to time I’d pick up a rock from the stream, turn it over, and find the shallow form or impression of a creature looking like a giant sow bug. My eyes turned from the streambed to the black walls of the gullies, which were built up in layers of shale. On Saturdays, when I had more time than I did after school, I’d pack hammer and stone chisel with me, and go at those walls of shale, and the secret life forms they held—shells, sea lilies, trilobites! My friend Norman’s father was a biologist who knew about such things.

My real schooling in those days took place outdoors, not in closed rooms with blackboards, flags, clocks that had Roman numerals, and cloakrooms in back. Earth was my classroom and teacher, aided by anybody who could put what I’d found into some kind of perspective. Sixty-five years later, I’m still the same kid in hot pursuit of horseshoe crabs, sandpipers, wildflowers. Now I think more in terms of watersheds than small streams, the progression of the seasons than fixed days of the week, but I’m the same child whose consciousness has grown large in the never-ending flood of personal adventure and experience that is my life and no other’s.

What a difference it makes to follow your own course of study instead of having to fulfill others’ ideas of what you should be doing with your life. Whatever I am, I am my own person, so respond my own way as best I can. Schools fill your head with what other people want you to know, so you become an agent for a sector of society that henceforth has dibs on your body. It’s like a credit-card debt you will never be free of because you unwittingly took it on when you were too young to realize what you were doing. Graduation is the beginning of payback time when you are expected to perform at the job for which you’ve been trained. Getting a job and supporting the economy have become so routine in our culture that we have come to believe that’s how life is meant to be lived. You are made to feel selfish and unpatriotic if you even dream of plotting your own course. To be a good citizen is to devote your life’s energy to fulfilling the dreams others lay upon you. Forget your own bliss and get on with what you have been programmed to do. It’s that simple. And that crazy.

Sanity lies in taking your own consciousness back from those who have stolen it from you. In being your own person in your own life in the place where you are. The price you pay is in being responsible for your own actions because you can’t blame your boss, your folks, your spouse, or your kids for your being who you are in doing what you do. If you aren’t comfortable with what consciousness presents to you, you can always change your ways—it’s your call, as long as you do it without inflicting harm on others in the process. This is the opposite of the jihadist way based on such a narrow under-standing that all blame for things going wrong can be cast on designated enemies you are entitled to blow up in self-righteous fury. No one in his right mind would fight in a war if he didn’t believe those he killed were lesser beings than himself, deserving of slaughter like so many ants. This requires adjusting consciousness to think in terms of the good and the evil, those deserving to live and those begging for death.

But if you are on good terms with your own mind, you know that others are striving to be on good term with theirs as well, and all face the same struggle in achieving a life that is considerate, fair, just, and the equal of all others. No one can hand you such a life, you must earn it on your own, and support others in striving to earn theirs. Do they teach that in school? They pay lip service to fair play, but the hidden agenda is always the home team’s got to win. If the umpire calls a foul against your side, he is clearly blind. The other side is always at fault—it’s their nature. But by being on your own, you realize others are too. If you take advantage of them, they will return the favor fourfold. If you treat them fairly as equals, ditto because they identify with you, as you have shown you do with them.

Give and take is the nature of a mutually beneficial society. Fixed minds and ideologies are a curse upon the collective consciousness of the whole. Schooled as a group to believe the same doctrine, we lose sight of truth itself. Educated (led out) as individuals each on our own, we share our respective excitements and learn from one another as equal participants in the adventure of life. Individuals contribute to society as they are uniquely qualified to do, enriching it by giving the gift of one self to all, which the all will reciprocate, each in his or her manner.

Reclaiming childhood means taking the risk of reclaiming consciousness for each individual. That encourages each one to be his or her unique self all the way. It means giving up the myth that under the skin all are identical. We are valuable one to another precisely because we are unique and have something to offer that no one else has. Genetically we are distinct, as we are situationally, experientially, and existentially. No one is more essential than another, all are equally valuable.

That is where this riff on reclaiming childhood for ourselves has taken me. Equality itself is attainable through our diversity, as are fair treatment and true social justice. In thinking all must be educated the same to be treated the same is a fundamental error because it cannot be true. No two of us are alike; each is unique. A true education would address our personal constellation of interests and abilities, and nurture them to find where they lead. An education that closes a person down for the sake of group unity is no education at all. We all need encouragement to open ourselves up so we can blossom in youth and come to fruition in maturity. As our individual if imperfect selves, not clones of some perfect—and wholly fictitious—ideal.

We’ve tried no child left behind and it hasn’t worked. How about moving every child to the fore of his own life and see how that goes? Children are unique individuals when they are born, and are such in school. Respecting and nurturing that individuality just may be the key to facing the growing number of problems our numbers and lifestyles are causing in today’s world. It’s time for a new take on education. I suggest we place our trust in the expansion and development of individual consciousness and see where it takes us. That is, base education on who and where our children are at the time of learning and not impose lessons despite who and where they are as we so often do now. The sandbox, playground, back yard, and stream gully are all places of learning. How about retiring the school board and trusting our children to show us what they can do on their own as their budding consciousness means them to do?

Herring in a Bucket

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

(Note: This is a continuation of Reflection 100: The Way Ahead, Part I, which appeared Friday, May 8, 2009. –SP)

 

6. We must be cautious in incorporating contributions made by others into our thinking because there is often no way to verify the conditions under which those contributions were developed. No two minds are the same, much less even similar. The most coherent results flow from a single mind fully integrated within itself. If we can contribute anything at all to the study of consciousness, let it rest on the disciplined integrity of individual minds gathered within themselves. Opinions and advice from others often amount to little more than hearsay because the best part—the voyage of self-discovery—is usually left out.

 

7.     Consciousness is fed by concrete, highly processed sensory input being mapped onto an abstract ground of concepts nearly devoid of specific content, together with a certain emotional climate within body and mind. These sensory, conceptual, and emotional components add to a fully-funded experience within consciousness as if they were inherently inseparable in all minds. But the details range widely from person to person, each mind on its own being responsible for the combined import and meaning of the components assembled in consciousness. Often one word will be used in referring to the full assembly, while individual hearers might internally refer to very different experiences by that name. All communication based on or about consciousness must be sufficiently thorough to make room for personal differences in consciousness.

 

8.  Discovery of what it means to be fully conscious requires the extra step of being conscious of oneself being conscious. You have to rise above yourself and look down in awe at the workings of your own mind. How wonderful it is that we can do this, or learn to do it if we haven’t yet developed the skill. This is the gift of introspection, in which the mind observes itself within a situation of self-observation. The more hours you put in, the better you will be able to do it. No life adventure is more demanding—or potentially rewarding.

 

In the world revealed through introspection, a sense is gained of what it means to be humanly aware of oneself. A deep appreciation of one’s own mind is the reward, and a realization that an unexamined mind may well lead to carelessness in addressing world events. By this approach, only the mind can be known: all else is conjecture and speculation—which I suggest is the root of the crisis we are now experiencing. Thousands of pundits broadcast their views, but how many have put in the ten-thousand hours necessary to know their own minds rather than a world situation they can know only partially, and largely secondhand. Thinking about a situation is not the same as living it in personal consciousness.

 

9.  The world has been ruled by assertive, dominant strongmen long enough. It is time to bring a new sort of person to the fore, one who understands compassion and humility as human strengths, not weaknesses. No leader can impose civic or world order by decree. A thousand minds must work in concert to achieve order that is both durable and flexible at the same time. Dominant strongmen rule by primitive force; those who have come to terms with the fallibility of their own minds rule through compassionate understanding. What the current state of affairs clearly demonstrates is the need for less force in the world and more compassion for others.

 

10.     The left-brain interpreter is key to understanding why we individually do what we do, collectively resulting in the world being as it is. It is the executive function of the brain that makes sense of all that is going on in the mind in relation to one situation or another. Making sense is the mind’s chief business in coming up with a plan of action appropriate to those situations. The point of living a life is doing, then redoing, not watching from a safe distance.

 

     To function, the interpreter must be involved in a situation represented in consciousness. It requires a clear focus of attention, backed by a state of bodily arousal. If uninvolved, the interpreter takes a holiday. Which is how we let the world situation get away from us on so many fronts. We simply haven’t been paying attention to the many impacts we have on our cultural climate any more than on the natural world. We have delegated our oversight responsibility to others, and proceeded as if on cruise control.

 

     That is, we have let ourselves be distracted so that our left-brain interpreter is out of the loop regarding the cultural and environmental impacts of our behavior. A sorry state of affairs because what distracts us is often of very little consequence—like surfing the Web, watching TV, mindlessly chatting on cell phones—in general making ourselves comfortable when we should be on high alert.

 

     Life has become so much a matter of routine for many of us, our priorities have been turned upside down so that trivial details are high on our lists and important matters are scribbled in lightly at the bottom, if they make the cut at all. The world we live in is reduced to the world in our heads, which even though all-consuming at the moment, leaves the long-term consequences of inattention to more important matters beyond our mind’s grasp.

 

     Being out of the loop, our interpreters look for interesting reading, or find involvement in pithy drawings by Roz Chast or films by Woody Allen. That is, they feed vicariously on other people’s consciousness and life involvement as more interesting than their own. Such interpreters donate money to worthy causes as a proxy for taking relevant action on the home front. With the collective result that they wake up one day to find the world, the economy, and people at large in far worse shape than they had realized. Out-of-touch interpreters are incapable of planning appropriate action because they haven’t been tracking the various situations which, unattended, have collapsed.

 

     That is why I say we have to pay particular attention to our left-brain interpreters so they make sense of the cultural and environmental scene in a way that corresponds to the true states of affairs. Only then can we engage in activities appropriate to the messes we are actually in because we have inadvertently contributed to them by not paying attention.

 

     Learning to mind the personal interpreter is the primary goal of the program of consciousness study I am here advancing. I mean “mind” in two senses, 1) to pay attention to, and 2) to supervise or direct. If we can accomplish that revolution in consciousness, we can begin to undo the harm that laissez-faire consciousness has inflicted and continues to inflict on the natural and cultural worlds.

 

With this summary of my blog, I seem to be setting consciousness studies back 2,500 years to the days when a panel in the forecourt of Apollo’s temple at Delphi bore the inscription (in Greek), Know Thyself. But thinking about it, I realize that most of the cultural wars and disasters humanity has inflicted on itself and its planet have occurred in those two-and-a-half millennia. Maybe the Greeks were on to something that has been lost in the intervening span. We have become overawed by the material world and underawed by the wonders and follies of our minds. The rub is that we don’t hold ourselves responsible for the world because God or the gods run it as they will, while unobserved behind the scene our minds are given free rein to cavort at random as if by some unstated, basic human right. As Alexander Pope described humankind in the final couplet of his poem, Know Thyself:

 

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

 

The goal of the brand of consciousness study I recommend here is to update humanity’s self-image by going to the source of our problem of inattention, learning as much as we can about the workings of our left-brain interpreters, and then rebooting them with an updated list of priority situations to be dealt with through active participation so that we become less of a joke or riddle to ourselves.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Everybody knows that schools are for educating our children. Very well, what does that mean—educating? The word stems from Latin educare, to lead out (e-, out; ducare, to lead or draw). Education, then, suggests a process of leading our children into the (adult) world. Which is pretty much how it works, adults setting the curriculum and walking children through it stage by stage, supervising development of relevant skills as they progress. The process is a bit like running a steeplechase with ever-higher hurdles and broader water jumps.

 

This view of education rests on a great many assumptions. For instance, that adults know what is good for children in general and each child in particular at every stage of development. That adults can anticipate what sort of world their children will grow into. That all children should strive toward the same goals. That the understanding and skills valued by adults are exactly the sort their children will require when they mature. And above all, that children need to be taught by adults and can’t be trusted on their own to learn about the world they are growing into. That is, education is a top-down (or outside-in) rather than a bottom-up (or inside-out) process. The basic fear is that left to develop their own resources, children will turn feral and become too wild for civil society.

 

Yet every child learns to talk within a language-speaking community without being taught how to do it. She acquires language through imitating the speech she hears around her without requiring instruction in syntax or grammar. And to walk-skip-jump-run within an ambulatory community, and be social within a sociable community, and play games and exhibit curiosity and have fun and observe her surroundings—driven by her own motives and curiosity in company with peers and adults, all without reference to any syllabus or curriculum, all shaped by examples but not taught by instruction. On their own, children are born learners. What they require to develop skills is clear examples of others using their bodies in disciplined ways. Those others could be dogs running, birds building nests, people living their lives.

 

An alternative to education (leading out) is introduction (leading in; intro-, within; ducere, to lead). Introduce a child to new experiences and he will incorporate their features on his own according to his interests, abilities, and readiness. Will he get what he is supposed to get from such experiences—that is, what adults want him to get? Perhaps not. But by considering phenomena within his own consciousness (and not that of his teachers), he is likely to get what excites him and he is ready for. The world he grows into will prove to be an outward expression of his personhood. Nobody’s minion, he is his own man.

 

What I am suggesting here is a course of introduction to the many facets of consciousness as an alternative to cognitive (subject-matter) education as it has evolved in today’s world. Mothers encourage their children’s development by interacting with them—by introducing them to activities that each can enjoy on her own level of challenge. Such participatory learning is mutually exploratory and engaging on all sides. It’s not the subject matter external to themselves that children must learn but the processes necessary to living a life.

 

What I recall from my own schooling is counting holes in ceiling tiles over and over, or looking out the window waiting for the day to be done. Teachers instructed from the front of the room; students did as they were told while sitting in their seats. Whether mental or physical, there was very little mutual engagement. If there was joy or excitement in the classroom, it was discovered apart from and despite the daily lesson plan.

 

Consciousness has many rewards, one of which is behavior judged appropriate to the situation that arouses it. Consciousness, that is, is participatory in shaping behavior in light of sensory feedback through a series of successive approximations until the desired level of performance is achieved. That loop is partly internal, partly external, and the reward is a sense of self-satisfaction at having met a challenge on the desired level of performance. It is not the teacher’s job to hand out gold stars because she is external to students’ loops of consciousness. What counts is each student evaluating her own performance by her own standards, and keeping on until those standards are met. Then raising them still higher.

 

In the schools I attended, power was reserved to the teacher at the front of the room. This disempowered students from the first day of classes to the last, sending the message that education was something done to students, not something they did for themselves through active participation. Classroom situations in such cases become a kind of dare. Teacher says, “Be quiet and do your work;” those in her charge reply in effect, “Make me learn if you can.” This dynamic is played out year after year until graduation day, when students think they are being set free, only to enter the workforce and encounter supervisors who control their performance much as teachers did in the classroom.

 

The most important thing children need to learn is how to manage the left-brain interpreter lodged in their brains and from which there can be no escape. That is, they need to base their judgments and self-accountability on convincing evidence, not opinion, prejudice, whimsy, dogma, or a factoid or two. Not partial evidence selected to support preexisting opinions, but sufficient evidence on which to base informed courses of action.

 

On whose authority should that course be adopted? The only authority consciousness heeds is personal authority—the authority inherent in each person as a unique individual. Citing external authorities is only the beginning. The issue is not what they thought then (courtesy of their left-brain interpreter) but what I think now (courtesy of my own interpreter) because I am the actor in every instance of my own behavior. If I pass the buck to Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, then I am acting on their behalf and am not my own person. Which is unwise in light of the fact that my survival is at issue, not theirs.

 

The key thing for us all to learn is to question what our left-brain interpreter is trying to tell us. Its motives are always suspect because it is operating within a larger situation that may well corrupt its narrative, resulting in spin, not truth. Are we trying to please someone? To undercut someone? To be outrageous? To take the easy way out? To appear to know more than we do? We can’t trust anyone else to guide us but our own judgment based on our cumulative life experience. Every action we take in the world is a product of that judgment. More than any other facet of consciousness, it makes us who we are.

 

So what are schools for? Nothing less than taking our budding judgments through their paces. That is, introducing us to different sorts of challenges, letting us evaluate and try to meet them, letting us fall short, letting us pick ourselves up and try again. In brief, letting us find our way by exercising and developing our personal judgments, along with the skills necessary to turn them into effective behaviors. That requires paying close attention to the interpreters of events in our heads, which are fully capable of waylaying us at every turn, causing us to base our actions on less than a full grasp of the facts of our current situation.

 

Only by doubting our own motives, opinions, and actions can we surpass our childhood selves and become reliable contributors to meeting the many challenges before us. Doubt, not accepted knowledge, is the key to exercising good judgment in the world of today, which is far different from the world our teachers’ knew in their day. This requires us to exercise our most basic piece of equipment—the individual consciousness through which we view so-called reality, but really serves as the seat of our interpreter, our judgment, our authority, our convictions, and our expectations—the inner reality we project outward in reinventing the world to suit ourselves.

 

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