To engage Peter Mark Roget’s mind as directly as possible, I sought as early an edition as I could afford of his Thesaurus, which turned out to be the 1933 American edition (as enlarged by his son, John Lewis Roget, and grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget).

Both editors had deep respect for their father’s/grandfather’s brainchild as realized in the editions he brought out between 1852 and the marked-up copy of the 1855 edition he left at his death in 1869. In effect, the 1933 American edition transports the reader into the mind of a man born in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War, enabling us to see how one man of those days went about sorting his “ideas,” “feelings,” “views,” “conceptions,” “emotions,” “thoughts,” and “sentiments” under the formal one-thousand numbered headings of his own devising.

My interest here is in the meanings of words as they spoke to Peter Mark Roget in his day and place (19th-century England). Collectively, those words map his semantic field into six grand Classes of meaning, further subdivided into twenty-four Sections, those Sections into 112 Subsections, in turn divided into 1,000 Headings containing word clusters made up of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. This four-tiered system of verbal classification furnishes, in Roget’s own words,

on every topic a copious store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged.

In looking through those headings today, we can scan the logical structure of Roget’s mind as he experienced it in his own day. It is ironic that most users of the Thesaurus ignore the systematized meanings as Roget laid them out, and prefer to work backwards from a familiar word listed alphabetically in the index and search for a suitable synonym within the headings listed there.

That is, modern users of the Thesaurus skip the context or situation within which a word is to be used, and go straight to the lowest level of classification, the heading that identifies a cluster of more-or-less synonymous words which they quickly scan and choose among.

So much for Roget’s labors of deriving those generic headings within his elaborate hierarchy of all possible meanings. What he offered the English-speaking world was similar to the method by which meanings were made available to his mind according to the experiential situations they answered to at the seat of his intelligence. What that world took from his efforts was very different from what he offered. His users now take the situation that a word is to be used in for granted, and select the word most appropriate for use in that situation, bypassing Roget’s overall system of word classification.

Only after-the-fact does our intuitive syntax become grammar as a subject in school. Only after he struggled a thousand times to come up with the perfect word apt to his thoughts did Roget come up with a system for classifying meaning to make the job easier and more transparent for himself and for others.

We learn by doing and striving to do better, faster, with less waste. So do we grow into the selves we become, but could never have predicted beforehand where we would end up. So did Roget leave us a map of his mind without having the slightest intent to leave any such map.

No one taught him to build a cluster of words around the common idea they all represent, such as under Heading 320, Levity, he associates feather with dust with mote with down with thistledown with flue with cobweb with gossamer with straw with cork with bubble with float with buoy with ether with air. He opened his mind and that cluster rose up within him because his mind had already sorted those words as being related one to another.

Filaments of common meaning as flow through his collective experience made him do it—create all those clusters of words. It was not a rational exercise. Start to finish, it was wholly experiential and aesthetic in that he had lived that flow, and his mind had simply mapped the currents flowing through it. That is, it was those mental currents themselves that were shaped by the structure of the neural tunnels through which they were channeled in his brain.

Currents and processes in the brain determine the nature of mind. Is that true? Is his brain responsible for Roget’s system of classification, or is his mind, or his experience? How do we come by the orderly systems we rely on to classify, rank, relate, distinguish, select, and compare our percepts and concepts? Where do taxonomies come from, anyway? How are signals routed through the labyrinth in our brains?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ability to make meaning—the fitting together of chunks of awareness or experience according to one system or another—is so prominent a human trait, we take it for granted as a quality of human thinking and intelligence.

Some give credit to rational or logical habits of thinking, but I don’t think it can be that simple. It is commonplace to group percepts and concepts by any quality or feature we can imagine. Then to put such groups or collections in ordered sequence by any number of criteria—size, shape, color, texture, function, time, date, age, topic, rarity, weight, effectiveness, and so on.

If we grow up among trees, say, are our neural networks any different from what they would be if we grow up among snowflakes, mountains, or sand beaches? If so, are our thoughts and ideas any different as a result of the nature of the world we acquire at birth? Are fish thoughts more fluid than bird thoughts (which might be said to be flighty)? Certainly our thoughts and experiences would differ to some degree, but would our neural networks be different? Our meanings? Our intelligence?

If we had seven or sixteen fingers, would the numerical system by which we put things in sequence be different? What if we had three eyes, or nine eyes like horseshoe crabs? We know that crows can count up to about seven, how high can jellyfish count? What sort of alphabet would snakes develop if they had a vocabulary?

I am on a roll of thought in this post, and sense that it could continue for a long time. I like to keep each post to a reasonable length without getting carried away, so will arbitrarily put down my foot and say I will stop here, almost in mid-sentence. I can feel my thoughts rolling onward, but I will pick up the thread in my next post.

Wayfarers all, what are we but course correctors, ever vigilant to steer ourselves clear of reefs all around? To find our way through the uncharted seas ahead?

I view emotions as signaling the relative success (positive or negative, good or bad) of our engagements in furthering the journeys we are making for ourselves. Positive emotions such as joy, happiness, and a general well-being confirm our progress, while disorders of engagement as marked by frustration, anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and loneliness signal that we are lost to ourselves.

Emotions tell us how we are doing in making our rounds of engagement. We are fearful of or angry at those who thwart or interrupt us, and smile upon those who cooperate and help us on our way.

Darwin pointed to this duality of emotions at the core of our being:

As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives according as they lead to this end; as happiness is an essential part of the general good and the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1974], page 699, my italics).

Better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad—so do we wend our way every day of our lives as guided by a compass of emotion that tells us whether we are on course or not toward the great end of happiness. Darwin wrote of the greatest-happiness principle as a moral force in the context of moral instincts and behavior, but I think the principle applies to our every engagement, with our innermost selves—the intelligence situated at the core of our being—as the judge of our relative failure or success.

What I am saying in this series of posts is that we steer our way through our life’s engagements by a compass that gauges the duality of our happiness and success on an emotional scale. And further, that the space between the poles of that duality is precisely what we are conscious of as we go along.

Nowhere is that duality more evident than in our dreams, which highlight our yearnings as regarded from a perspective of helpless inactivity imposed by sleep during which we cannot connect our intentions to our actions by any means. In that sense, dreams narrate the drama of our good intentions—and inevitable failure to go where we wish to go and do what we wish to do.

Here is the verbatim report of a dream I had on December 4, 2013, that reflects the state of my mind when my loops of engagement were stymied time after time, yet I remained at the helm with my raw feelings exposed. A wayfarer without navigation skills, I couldn’t engage in a meaningful way with the situation I found myself in, so things inevitably went from bad to worse.

I am hired to operate a big electronic machine. I have two assistants to work with me, but no one has explained how the machine works, so I feel strong pressure to explain it to my helpers, but I can’t live up to that responsibility. I have the machine moved outside to be where other machines are. I wait for instructions, which don’t come. To get back in the building, we all must climb up the forty-five-degree slope of the loading dock made of slippery metal. The climb is arduous. After climbing the ramp twice and slipping back, I say I won’t do it again, so am shown an alternate route up the back wall of a dark room where my superiors are meeting around a table. I hear my name mentioned as I scale the back wall to reach a narrow (horizontal) cupboard door at ceiling level that I must crawl through. It leads to a kitchen shelf in an adjoining room where two men are preparing food. I apologize for getting in their way, but imagine the meeting’s view of my legs sticking out of the narrow opening as I barely squeeze through it. I have a strong sense of the direction I must take to get back to work along a metal-lined walkway up a steep slope and along slippery rocks. I wear boots and keep slipping back, making no headway. I wake up while slipping back once again.

To me, that is a clear portrait of a mind that is driven to act, but can’t act effectively because it can’t engage in a meaningful exchange with significant features of its surroundings. That mind is my dream mind, pursuing happiness, but being thwarted at every turn because I have no means of enacting my intentions.

It is precisely the feel or texture of such thwarted adventures that fuels the bulk of my dreams. There is no on-the-spot revision or change of course, no learning from experience. Each such dream situation depicts a series of errors without correction. My dreams are one-dimensional, relentlessly rushing on from situation to situation without any course adjustments whatever.

I find myself navigating without judgment—because as helmsman, I can’t turn the wheel, or it is broken. It is always a relief to wake up and return to my senses, to effectively engage my world once again by getting up, washing my face, and performing such a simple task as making breakfast. That, I discover again and again, is a source of true happiness in being both conscious and in control of my destiny.



(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.












(Copyright © 2008)


When the first astronauts looked down on the Earth from space, they were less than articulate in telling what they saw. Wow! Look at that! is how I remember their spontaneous reports. They were all but speechless. I made fun of their puny descriptions then, but now I believe they were so unprepared for the experience of looking down on Earth from space that they were almost overwhelmed by the emotions that came over them. In ordinary life, our language for strong emotions often consists of four-letter words. When under stress, we find that the language of rational thought is largely irrelevant. Emotional language is more a matter of curses, sighs, cries, and moans.


Or memorized lyrics—as in songs, hymns, anthems, and such. On stage, actors can eloquently speak their emotions because they have memorized their lines. One of the most haunting moments in music took place at the 1928 Remembrance Day Ceremony in Albert Hall when assembled veterans of World War I sang, “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” a song they all knew by heart. No sound is bigger than those moving voices.


But the language of emotional consciousness, I now realize, is made more for action than sentimental songs. When it comes to expressing feelings, words are only incidental. Usually, big actions are called for, like hitting the line, running as fast as you can, or making love, not little actions like talking, knitting, or building model planes. Which gets to the core of why we have them. Emotions are tools of survival in threatening situations. The finer details of culture emerges only once we get past them and have time to simmer down and relax. Emotions are based on hormones secreted into the blood when we are under some sort of stress and need to make a quick response.


Depression, on the other hand, seems to be a squelching of emotion resulting from not being able to act because we are held back when our blood tells us to get going. Perhaps the best thing to do when we can do nothing appropriate to our situation is to shut down and wait. In such circumstances, temporary depression might make its own kind of sense. Long-term depression, however, as a symptom of long-term inaction can lead to utter hopelessness and collapse. Short term stress gets us going; long-term stress can be lethal.


All of which is a prelude to what I want to write about in this post. The aftermath of my earlier blog about music consciousness (see Reflection 38).


I am writing a blog about music consciousness. I want to dispense with program music that tells a story as something entirely different. Peter and the Wolf is a good example of the confusion we get into when words and music are mixed together, as in songs, operas, and oratorios. In those media it is hard to tell if felt responses stem from the music, the words, or both (or neither; maybe it’s the costumes and scenery). I am looking for an example of music accompanied by something other than words. Like dance. Like ballet. How about Swan Lake? What’s that dance for the four little swans? The four cygnets? Fifty-five years ago when I was at Columbia, dance had a strong hold on me. I went to performances of Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet almost every week. I met my first wife while waiting in line to get into Sadler’s Wells at the Met. I search for Swan Lake on the Web, and one of the early options comes up, Bolshoi Swan Lake – Pas de Quatre Small Swans. The very thing! I would have said Cygnets or Little Swans, but that’s Russian translators for you. I click the link—and there is a video of a Bolshoi production of the Dance of the Small Swans. I realize immediately that I can’t use ballet as an example because so much of the meaning of the piece is conveyed by the dancers—the visual impression—not the music. The video starts on its own. Suddenly I’m there, in New York watching the cygnets cavort 55 years ago. Same dark stage, same white costumes, same music, same steps—same me. I watch, transfixed. I don’t breathe for two minutes. What am I unleashing here? I clamp my lips to avoid blubbering. This is beauty, this is power. Pure grace. No, I don’t say the words—I feel the movement, the music. The magic. My rational mind is reduced to a series of clichés. Wow. Here is the world of sights, sounds, and expectancy I plunged into when I moved from Boston to New York in 1952 when I was twenty. I choke up. The video is almost too much. I am stunned. Transported. Why not let go? But I can’t. The tension is unbearable. I know the dance by heart. It’s been inside me all these years, and I never once acknowledged it. Never turned it loose. Watching the four dancers, I see myself being wholly myself, or wanting to be, but embarrassment clamps down on my emotional self. Steeling my lips so not to show my emotions. To whom? To me—I’m the only one around. I am of two minds, one rational, the other emotional. As if the two parts of me hadn’t lived together all these years and come to terms. One had to “win” and squelch the other. I see it all. When the video stops, I sit at my laptop, overwhelmed.


For me, this was a Proustian moment. But instead of regaining consciousness of the past by tasting a piece of madeleine (French almond cake) dipped in tea, as Proust’s protagonist did in Remembrance of Things Past, I found it by clicking a link on the Web—which burned a hole in my here-and-now mind through which the past leapt into the now.


I immediately felt a compelling shock of resonance between my consciousness then and my consciousness now. As if several different parts of my brain danced to the same tune. Music was involved, but sight and motion were kindled at the same time. I wasn’t just viewing the past, I was actually there. I pictured brain waves humming in resonance in every quarter of my mind, giving one another mutual feedback and support.


Reflecting on the experience, I think resonance is the key to the emotions I felt. The coordinated movements of the four dancers revealed a clear physical resonance echoing the music. Each dancer was her own person, yet was sympathetically linked to the other three. If their motions had been identical, they would have been robots. Holding hands, they moved in sympathy one with another. And I was with them the whole time, both my past and present selves, sharing in the discipline and the resonance.


Such states of resonance are a big part of consciousness. That’s how we learn, by being with others, watching, then imitating them as if reflecting their inner selves. We make fun of such imitative behavior, calling out, “monkey see, monkey do.” But we all play that game. Watch any two people in an intense conversation, each unconsciously mimicking the behavior of the other. I see it in myself. My partner crosses her arms, then so do I. I lean back in my chair, then so does she. We take turns being with others by translating their image into our posture. If we see it, we can do it. I feel sure that has a lot to do with feelings of closeness in families, friendships, and communities.


If you have doubts, take a look at the Beatles’ Hey Jude video on the internet. By the umteenth repetition of the chorus—“da, da, da, dadidada, dadidada, Hey Jude,” your brain waves will be synchronized with the band and their audience, and you will know exactly what resonance feels like. It’s O.K. to show emotions if body language tells you everybody else feels the same.



Reflection 41: Christmas Tree

December 24, 2008


(Copyright © 2008)


At rail crossings, if you stare at freight cars rolling by, all you see is a blur of colors. But if you look up the track and pick a particular car to follow, then pan with your eyes and head, you can read the lettering on the side—Lackawanna, Santa Fe, Rock Island, Denver Rio Grande, Bangor and Aroostook.


Years ago, I encountered the same effect while watching folded newspapers roll off the press at the Boston Globe. The chute to the loading dock was a blur of newsprint until I picked one paper to track down the flow—and I could read the headlines as if the paper were standing still. By mimicking the papers’ speed and direction with my eyes, I cancelled their motion.


The trick is not just paying attention; it’s how you do it that feeds into consciousness and builds your reality.


You can try this by tracking one flake in a snowstorm. One falling leaf. One wave on the ocean. One face in a crowd. One ornament on a Christmas Tree.


I have a Christmas Tree in my head. A tree decked with memories of all the special moments in my life. Emotionally-charged episodes that, collectively, make up my unpublished autobiography. Usually, I don’t pay any attention to what’s in me. Memories, I say, from the past. But they’re there for a reason. I am an emotional being, and it helps to keep that in mind so I don’t have to keep inventing myself anew every time I experience a surge of strong feeling. My autobiographical memory is one of the contexts in which I live. What I know (or think I know)—my personal encyclopedia—is another such context. Along with all the places I’ve been, all the people I’ve met, and so on.


I seldom browse through my store of memories and select one to explore and re-experience at length. Like ornaments on a balsam fir, they’re there in a mass, not individually. Which means they’re mostly ignored and their particular details might as well not be there.


But if I pick one episode in my life—one ornament on my tree of memories—for whatever reason, and savor it, then I’m being more fully myself in merging who I once was with who I am today. It’s like I’ve carried all these ornaments around for years without looking at them, regarding them more like a moving freight train or chute full of newspapers—knowing they’re there but not really seeing them because I’m not appreciating them fully. If I go about it right, I don’t have to select one, I just set the stage by being still, and a memory will rise into consciousness. For example, I was sitting quietly by myself the other day, as Quakers often do, and out of the silence came this:


Having just moved to New York from Boston in 1952, I find myself standing on the platform of the IRT subway station in Times Square, waiting for a northbound express. Trains rush in from their tunnel of darkness, stop briefly, then rush into the darkness ahead. The third rail lies in a darkness of its own. I am aware of it as a lurking presence beyond the platform. The crowd bustles around me. Where I’ve been and where I’m going are not important. I’m just there, situated in my new life in New York. Glancing to my right, I focus on the girl standing next to me, also waiting. I suddenly realize I am standing on a subway platform in New York next to the most beautiful girl in the world. Everyone else disappears. Whole trains disappear. There’s only me the silent observer, and this special person, this apparition. I look away. A train comes out of nowhere. Doors open. The most beautiful girl in the world steps as a normal person would step into the train. She moves to her right. I see her in profile, lifting her hand, grasping a hanger to steady herself. Doors close. The train pulls out of the station, carrying her on to the rest of her life. Leaving me standing on the platform, aware of myself as just one member of the crowd that suddenly engulfs me.


Even writing about this ornament stirs me today. I can feel my heart beating faster after 56 years. I wonder what life held for the girl. Probably what it holds for the rest of us, a mystery we try to find meaningful and make the best of. Knowing what I’ve made of that mystery for myself, I now treasure that encounter as a special moment of being in the presence of exceptional beauty, beauty still with me today. One in a lifelong series of beautiful moments. I hope that girl had—and is having—a good life.



At this darkest time of year for us northerners,

think on beauty, light, and peace.

Don’t let trains rush by without asking what they have

to tell you.

Don’t let headlines revert to a blur.

Hold yourself and your world in full consciousness

however you can.

Joyeux Solstice D’hiver 2008  —SP