489. Word Cluster

April 21, 2015

Knowing yourself flows from engaging yourself. That is, from your situated intelligence monitoring the actions you take in the role of subjective doer in engagement at the same time with sensory impressions you form in the role of objective perceiver.

At the core of each mind is the situated intelligence that seeks understanding as a state of mind in particular situations encountered during engagement. The understanding sought is to be found by examining the situation in which questions arise.

Those situations themselves are qualities of mind produced by the accrual of experience, which has broadly served as the subject of this blog. Situated intelligence is our agent for knowing the world by reviewing the situations our external environments stir up in us, those situations constituting the inner reality we actively engage with, no matter what else is going on around us.

What a marvelous system it is that we are given at birth and learn to use by living the life that we do. If we but question ourselves, we can trace an answer to how we ourselves frame the question under influence of the experiential situations that spur our engagements and experiences.

Others at our sides will do the same task their own way. Since questions do not pose themselves, the source of all questions is the situated intelligence at the core of our being. The essence of knowing is found by appealing to the interest and curiosity of she who wants to know. Where else can we look but to our own situations as we construct them in our respective minds?

This blog is probably as close as I will ever come to solving the mystery posed by my own mind as viewed by myself. One of my chief learnings is just how few people are concerned with the issues I raise here, most, apparently believing that answers lie in the material world, not their own minds.

I find that the dictum “Know Thyself” is dead to the world in which I find myself alive. As a culture, we are fixated on the brain as the source of all knowing, not the mind that works in conjunction with its own brain during engagements with nature, culture, community, and family to produce the miracle of consciousness.

But consciousness is more than a miracle. It is humanity’s cumulative response to the myriad challenges we are born to. The many facets of mind are the answer to the questions that Earth poses, not the material answer, brain. We have to earn our minds by applying them to the problems we face in just getting through the day, every day.

My chief discovery in writing this blog is a growing awareness of the quality of mind that makes my engagements possible with others and with the world we share together, a quality I don’t really have a name for. Sympathy and empathy are too overburdened already.

The word I am looking for takes the form of a word cluster that, as yet, has no heading. The cluster includes striving, hope, intelligence, wonder, confidence, durability, fragility, respect, responsibility, worthiness, persistence, and trust. These words refer to the mental tools I apply to myself every day. Gather them together and they all fall under the heading . . . what? What is the common denominator that makes effective engagement even possible?

Whatever it turns out to be, that missing heading captures the set of conditions that collectively enables engagement by self with non-self, first-person with world. It is a kind of regard that embraces self and others as being equally worthy and responsible at the same time. It balances durability with fragility, hope with despair, planning with spontaneity.

It is within the aura of that cluster of words that productive engagements can take place, that perception can spur meaning, judgment can spur action, action can spur engagement and subsequent perception.

Does such a word exist as would serve to head that cluster of terms referring to mental conditions? If not, I will have to invent one that fits the need I am alluding to. A word that defines the social contract by which it is safe, desirable, exciting, and gratifying for me to engage you—and you to engage me—in such a way that we will both be changed for the better. As Venus and Serena Williams engage their tennis opponents and take the game itself to a higher level for the benefit of all concerned. As life-long learners turn all experience into a positive good. As contests and rivalries blossom into win-win situations.

I am putting a positive spin on the heading I want because the cluster commonly refers to conditions that favor productive engagement, not isolation, violence, cruelty, distain, disaffection, and all the qualities of disengagement. Engagement enhances the survival of both parties in mutual interaction. It is positive and life-sustaining, not negative and life-stealing-away.

Enmity belongs in the cluster that is opposite to the one I am seeking, as does hatred, as does anger, as does violence. I am searching for a term that includes aspects of Earth, other planets, the sun, the whole shebang. It’s the old problem of a universe that contains both good and evil, angels and devils, heaven and hell. If they are polar opposites, I am emphasizing the pole that favors life and creativity, not death and destruction. Not ruination. Like Ozymandias, we all overextend ourselves and die in the end.

I am looking for a heading that is the opposite of entropy and “the universal heat death.” A term that opens the way to possibilities yet unachieved, not possibilities foreclosed.

The essence of the word I want is that it refers to a process that is ongoing, that has a future, that leads to hope, not regret, not despair. Clearly, I am not talking about using others for my personal advancement. Or about imposing myself on others. Or making myself dependent on others.

I am looking more for a sense of balance between respective durabilities and fragilities, hopes and fears, worthiness and failings. Trust and intelligence come pretty close, as long as they are mutual, and are joined in a process that evolves into a future. I am not seeking a gift that is given once and for all, nor for something either foolishly ventured or demanded.

Equality is of the essence here, between subject and object, so that both are not only taken into account, but can change places at any time. As sharing, turn-taking, and equality are the essence in sports.

Yes, I am looking for something that takes skill, cooperation, commitment, and concentration. Just like any sport you could name—baseball, soccer, track and field, cricket, speed skating, and all the rest (competition without needless violence).

Including everyday wayfaring, making our own way one step at a time. How does that translate to the situated intelligence in our minds that governs our ongoing engagements?

Mindfaring! Not wayfaring. That is, inside the mind, not outside in the world. That’s what I’ll call the heading I want. For, indeed, it takes properties of mind to run effective and ongoing engagements. We are all responsible for making our separate ways. They take place on the outside, but are governed on the inside of our respective black boxes. No one can do the job for us. We are all on our own.

How would that look as the heading of a word cluster (arranged in alphabetical order)?

Mindfaring

  • Action
  • Confidence
  • Desirability
  • Durability
  • Engagement
  • Equality
  • Excitement
  • Fragility
  • Gratification
  • Hope
  • Intelligence
  • Judgment
  • Meaning
  • Persistence
  • Planning
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Safety
  • Spontaneity
  • Striving
  • Trust
  • Wonder
  • Worthiness

That’s my first stab at the clusters in my personal Thesaurus for the qualities of inner life that govern our engagements with the world. If I had another life to live, I’d work on listing the other 999 headings. But I don’t, so I won’t.

We all know the clusters of words that make life a series of failed engagements. We hear them on the news every day. That work has already been done.

It is the building of a platform for self-knowledge that requires doing. I propose that mindfaring is the way for those who choose the future.

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(Copyright © 2009)

It is 5:12 A.M. I am standing with a group of 18 Native and non-native Americans on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We are in the clouds; it is raining. I am first to arrive… but not really the first. Three fire-tenders have been there all night, drumming to keep themselves warm and awake while keeping the fire. The others arrive at this sunrise without the sun. We circle the fire—and more particularly, the bed of glowing coals the fire-tenders have spread. The coals are pulsing orange; we in our rain gear are blue, green, brown, yellow, red. Three stand under black umbrellas. Rain or shine, we have permission from the National Park Service to welcome the sun, begin a new day, and spiritually prepare for the gathering of Tribal environmental leaders from across the country to start later that morning.

The fire-tenders bless themselves with a smoldering braid of sweet grass lit in the coals. They pass the braid over their heads and backs, arms and hands, legs and soles of feet, wafting the scented smoke over their bodies, clad as they are against the rain. Then they offer the sweet grass to each of us in turn and we bless ourselves in the same manner.

Those new to the ceremony carry on by imitation, doing for themselves as they have watched others do before them. Monkey see, monkey do, I thought to myself as I accepted the braid. But in rituals, performance is everything. If you don’t know your way, you are wise to mimic what others are doing. Then we each pinch a tuft of tobacco from a small basket, and hold it out of the rain as the fire-tenders sprinkle theirs on the coals while saying a prayer, and each of us follows the pattern. For my prayer, I say I am honored to have lived long enough to share in the fire ceremony with those gathered on the summit, including a pileated woodpecker chanting nearby. When all have spread their tobacco on the coals, and bent down to waft the smoke over themselves, the fire is put out and every trace removed as if it never had been.

Fire-Tender

But it had been, I was there, and the traces were lodged in my brain. Specifically, in the so-called mirror neuron system that translates evidence of the senses into action. Consciousness, at the junction of sensory and motor systems, is in on the translating. Whatever actions you pay particular attention to and are motivated to imitate, you can perform because mirror neurons are on the job. First discovered in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons were anticipated by William James who wrote, “every mental representation of a movement awakens to some degree the actual movement which is its object.” Thus enabling Russian babies in the presence of Russian speakers to learn how to imitate Russian (not Portuguese) vowels and consonants. And me to learn the proper way to waft sweet-grass smoke over my body in a fire ceremony atop Cadillac Mountain.

Some researchers conclude that mirror neurons enable us to infer intentions and even beliefs from the behavior of others, but I think that is a bit of a stretch. Angry looks and threatening gestures may well instill fear, but experience advises us to beware seemingly innocent situations as some kind of trap, which I see as due to interpretation, not sadder-but-wiser mirror neurons. Such neurons fire in our brains both when we perform particular acts and when we see (or hear) others performing the same acts—as if all brains were one brain, or are at least wired much the same way.

If someone else looks sad to us, we may be concerned or empathic, but looks alone do not convey the reason for that sadness which, until we understand the other’s situation, is a matter of conjectural interpretation. Look at football fans in opposite bleachers, one standing and shouting with glee while the other slumps in dejection—in response to the same play on the field. Or place yourself in the jury box witnessing one attorney presenting the facts of the case, then the opposing attorney presenting them quite differently and drawing a different conclusion. I think we should not portray mirror neurons as being smarter than they are. The situation in which they perform is every bit as important as the motor gestures themselves.

What mirror neurons do is drape sensory signals (heard, seen, or imagined) in motor clothing as if actor and beholder were the same person and could simply switch roles. But in the fire ceremony, even if I gave a reasonable imitation of a Native American performing a similar sequence of gestures, were our gestures the same or even equivalent? Considering our different backgrounds and understanding of those gestures, I was very much the novice going through certain motions without having the wit to know what I was doing. When the toddler says “dada,” he recognizes the referent he intends by that sound, but knows that referent in a very limited way compared to how Dada knows himself and what he would mean by making the same sound. The idea of male genetic parenthood is far beyond the horizon of the toddler’s small world.

In a neurological sense, mirror neurons are extremely well connected, and their signals bear overtones from other parts of the brain. They not only tie perception to concrete action, but are informed by intention, understanding, interpretation, speech, feeling, and judgment. The feel of the moment is very much a synthesis of many aspects of consciousness. I see the mirror neuron system as bridging between all parts of consciousness at the crucial juncture where sensory input leads to motor output in terms of specific behaviors judged appropriate to the life situation as currently represented in the brain and understood in the mind.

Picture an infant so stimulated that her excitement drives her to flap her arms up and down in wholehearted devotion to what is happening at the focus of her attention. She is excited because her mirror neuron system is excited—but has not yet developed a repertoire of fine-motor responses. Ready for liftoff, she makes like a bird. Think what lies ahead as she learns to suit her responses to whatever so excites her. Think of young Tiger Wood sitting in his chair watching his father practice his golf swing. Think of yourself learning to dance, throw a Frisbee, use chopsticks, or speak like a Valley Girl. Eventually you get to the master class where you pattern your behavior on a performance by the greatest mime-saxophonist-pitcher-poet-chef in the world!

Or else you settle for your halting imitation of their example and decide to live within your personal limitations by sticking to karaoke, restricting your Elvis imitation to Halloween, doting on celebrities, or following the latest fashions. I tried mightily to learn Tai Chi from a teacher who was so impatient with individual moves that he could only teach them in the full sequence of the long form by serving as an example of perfection, which, viewed from the back—or not viewed at all when I was facing away—triggered no response from my mirror neuron system and I had to give up, as I gave up jazz dancing because it was all happening too fast for me to keep to the beat.

The reason that apprenticeships and hands-on training work is due to mirror neurons firing in exactly the same way whether performing an action or observing others perform the same action. Motor planning and execution areas of the brain are involved either way. If you want to paint like Picasso, copy his portraits—each brush stroke exactly—to get inside his head (or let him into your head).

There are a lot of visualization exercises around today, striving to imagine a better future. Picturing such a result and then bringing it about may seem to be very different activities, but they are more closely linked than it seems. The connection is that many of the same mirror neurons are involved in both planning and then striving to realize that plan. To know where you are headed is half the battle; follow-through is the other half. You have a better chance of getting there if you can visualize where you’re going.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, but reflecting on all the behaviors you have learned to execute through imitation will help you appreciate their role in human life. I didn’t just feel like an onlooker during the fire ceremony on Cadillac, I was a participant like the rest. Human see, human do. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything and now lead a larger life because I was there.

 

 

 Ω

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is there such a thing as a meeting of minds? Can community consciousness exist? I do know that groups can take concerted action, some by the will of the majority, some by consensus, some by executive decision. But what does that say about community consciousness?

 

What strikes me about the seven of us is that we’re all coming from different directions. We’re here to suggest topics for a statewide committee* in Maine to focus on in coming months, but so far each of us has proposed a different topic. It’s early in the meeting. I’ll just sit back and watch the process develop. Except I’m always the first one to open my mouth. What have we got so far? Pri says we have to move the state toward a moral economy (implying that the economy we have now is immoral). Robert says global warming is at crisis stage and is priority number one. Don’t forget health care, says Carole. The system we have isn’t working. I say, we need to educate our children for tomorrow, not yesterday as we are currently doing. Don’t forget the energy crisis, says Robert, it’s hitting everybody, now, this winter. In his calm voice, Gray says taxation is a statewide issue; we need a paradigm shift so we can buy collectively and pay less than we do on our own. That brings up whether or not capitalism has a chance of working, says Ed, which so far is not supported by the evidence. I say, don’t forget the environment which is footing the bill for all our past and present excesses. Whatever happened to compassion, says Jan, the we in we the people? We can’t pretend we can go it alone on rugged individualism. Look where that’s got us. And so it goes for a couple of hours, round and round the room, Ed taking notes all the while. The case management approach is expensive. Buy collectively, buy better. Social responsibility is a responsibility to share. Have taxes pay for programs that work. Whatever happened to enlightened self-interest—as an alternative to greed? The issue is not I have but we have together. What taxes? Sales, capital gains, income? Beware those who secretly believe in eugenics, survival of the fittest, and superior races ruling over their inferiors. But then in the last half hour the group comes together. Community. Cooperation. Compassion. Empathy. United we stand, divided we fall. One for all, all for one. Fairness and equity. Yes, we can! The moral economy is a we economy. Global warming and the energy crisis are we problems. Health care is a we issue. Educate for we awareness and mutual accountability. Taxation provides the wherewithal to turn this population of assorted individuals into a we nation. Nobody owns the environment; it has to be managed for the benefit of all species—the Big We, including humans. That’s the way Maine has to go. The state seal features the North Star at the top, with the motto Dirigo—“I lead.” Make that we lead. How to do that, that’s the conversation we want to get moving in this state.

 

There’s no way I can truly represent a conversation that evolved over two-and-a-half hours, so this attempt is largely fiction informed by truth. What it leaves out is the sense of struggle in listening to one another and to one’s inner self at the same time. Community consciousness, if it exists, is hard-earned, temporary, and specific to a given occasion. It has to be painstakingly built up over the duration of each and every occasion. But I do believe that seven minds can eventually attain a kind of resonance so that each voice speaks to and for the collective mind of all seven. At least that’s what we seem to have achieved.

 

One thing I haven’t said: we aren’t strangers coming together for the first time. We’ve known one another for fifteen years, coming together some fifty times a year since 1994. We know who we are and trust who we are. That makes a big difference. We’ve settled on a common language that works for us all. Which makes it easier to hear and feel what is being said. We’re all unique individuals, but we can eventually settle into a group that works together.

 

Different as we are, do we share a kind of consciousness in common? I think, yes, a consciousness earned through numerous encounters and discussions over the years. Our approach now is cooperative more than competitive. Which suits us to our times as an alternative to the temper of independence that has put the nation in the state we find today—near total collapse.

 

The scary part is how long it takes to develop community consciousness that emphasizes common interests over winning and personal selfishness. It takes decades to turn making a killing by oneself into making a living together. In fluid communities, people move in and out faster than the group requires to reach a workable level of cohesion. Even members of Congress aren’t around long enough to learn how to be effective in working together. And that favors a two-party system which outlasts them all—and distinctive party lines impervious to any impulse to compromise, much less cooperate. Our system of governance balks the gradual evolution of community consciousness on a national level.

 

Which leaves us where? Raising the hood, looking down at the motor which runs our political and economic systems, wondering where we went wrong, and what we can do now to get moving again.

 

¦

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* Friends Committee on Maine Public Policy.