(Copyright © 2009)

Looking at the world, as each of us does, through her own eyes, we see that world in reference to the uniqueness of our personal makeup and experience. My senses embody my particular history of life events, as your senses embody yours. These personal histories include our formative development, birth order, sex, class, education, temperament, political leanings, and the host of other influences that make us who we are.  Other people inhabit other worlds from ourselves, privileged by nature to exercise their unique sensibilities, often presenting themselves in ways that seem strange from our point of view. Sometimes, without knowing, we feel alienated from such other worlds because they strike us as being so foreign to our own.

When others conduct themselves in ways we would not conduct ourselves, we register the disparity as a strong sense of discomfort. That sense serves as a kind of error signal warning us we are out of our native element and approaching the limit of personal tolerance. Appropriate action being the desired outcome of any act of consciousness, we consider how we might improve the situation. Do we respond to what we take to be an insult with humor? Do we laugh it off, jeer, display hostility and aggression, seek sanctuary, or give way and, thinking we might learn something, pay attention while the others do their thing?

In truth, we have a great many options, but often resort to habitual modes of behavior for dealing with situations we take to be threatening. That way, we don’t waste any time thinking things through, but respond spontaneously as if the signals we take as insults were intentionally meant to inflict harm.

“You lie!” we shout, or “That’s stupid!” “Death panels!” “Killing Granny!” “Infidel.” If armed, we might shoot from the hip. The point is to take control of the situation by intimidating those we bother ourselves about. “Shock and awe!” was Rumsfeld’s battle cry in Iraq, as if mighty Ozymandias had shouted from the grave. “Let ‘em come!” said his boss, the same man who recited the phrase “axis of evil” from his Tele-Prompter.

Enmity is a cheap substitute for extending consciousness to embrace others who make themselves happen differently than we do. Particularly when affront is taken at, say, differences of dress, accent, sex, or religion. Distinctions interpreted as threats cause havoc, not righteousness. They can lead to attitudes of superiority over lesser beings, to put-downs, intolerance, bullying, armed conflicts, holocausts, colonial domination, and political strife.

Often envy, one of the seven transgressions formerly punishable by death, is at the root of such hostile behaviors. If they have what I want, I am justified in despising them, I tell myself as I blame others for frustrating my ambitions. Native Americans were in the way of European settlers, so were dispensable. The same for Aboriginal peoples in Australia, Palestinians in the so-called Holy Land, Obama in the White House through the eyes of those who choose to feel threatened by his right to hold office. It’s a figure-ground kind of thing.

We are prone to laying our assumptions and preferences—our personal values—on others as if they were obligated to act in our self-interest and not their own. This leads to domination, a sort of colonialism of the mind by which we impose our values on others as self-evident truths for the greater good (as seen from our personal perspective). This great game of as if causes more trouble in the world than almost any other aspect of consciousness. Think of the violence committed against children, wives, members of the true church, and other inferiors in the name of paternalism, the grand pretention that Father (or Husband) Knows Best. A great many advertising claims fall into this category, which confounds consumer interests with those of dealers and manufacturers. Such corporate or commercial takeovers of consumer consciousness are rampant in our way of economic thinking.

Consciousness is our greatest asset in dealing with challenges presented by the worlds we inhabit; that is, as long as it is managed by its rightful owner. Surrendering consciousness to those who covet it for their advantage amounts to resource extraction like mountain-top coal mining, clear-cutting extensive forest ecosystems, or mining the wealth (formerly known as fish and sea mammals) of the world’s oceans. Our current economy is based on invading, subverting, and capitalizing on the consciousness of a gullible public. Minds are extracted every day for profit: that’s what capitalism amounts to: the coercive transfer of assets from those who have less in order that others can have all the more.

Being swayed to misinterpret the disparity between our expectations and what actually happens leads to the erosion of personal consciousness for the sake of getting along with groups of others characteristically more aggressive than ourselves. Self-realization (what I call “making ourselves happen”) by others’ rules is a brute distortion of the most fundamental principles of evolution and survival, which concern the well-being of individual persons, not institutions or corporate bodies. As Jeff Madrick reports in The Nation (August 31/September 7, 2009) regarding a study of Harvard College grads from the early 70s, 80s, and 90s of the last century:

Many more college grads have entered finance since the early 1970s than in previous years. That’s no surprise. But the premium they earned over their peers in other fields was enormous. Katz and Goldin found that the grads in finance made, on average, almost 200 percent more (“Money for Nothing,” page 6).

Of course the reckoning came later—with the financial collapse in the fall of 2008—but the young financiers had made a killing in the meantime, and their corporate bosses are still making a killing many times over. In our society, we consider them the smart ones. The ones we admire and would emulate if we could. They are emissaries of capitalism who mine the conscious minds of the rest of us as so many natural resources to be exploited for personal gain.

The disparity in wealth in the world represents a disparity in consciousness between those content with sufficiency and those who lust for more. The smart money capitalizes on that disparity, as mortgage grantors capitalized on the vulnerability of mortgagees struggling to pay their bills, widening the gap on their own behalf rather than equalizing distribution of Earth’s limited resources—always the anonymous standard backing any currency you can name.

The root of the problem lies in the gap between our conscious expectations and the hands we are dealt by the movers and shakers of our society who deliberately squeeze us to gain as big a survival edge for themselves as they can. When Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” as President Obama was pushing his healthcare plan, it was the disparity between his party’s power and the president’s that made him do it. He never considered that his party’s fate had anything to do with chronic overreaching by Bush-Rove-Cheney, et al. who perversely plumped their slim hold on power into a mandate. The gap is in the eye of the beholder, who funds it with his personal brand of meaning—as long as it is to his personal advantage.

Such are the frailties of consciousness. The simple remedy is to wonder, when confronted by a gap between expectation and fulfillment, “Am I being unrealistic and it isn’t their fault at all?” Blame casting is our national sport, driven by our desires more than any realistic assessment of our performance. But my guess is that it is more likely that nine times out of ten, we have surrendered responsibility for our own behavior in order to find fault with some fall guy in order to cut him down to our size.

Envy used to be deemed a capital offense; maybe we should revisit that discussion. Or at least treat the defamed and exploited as innocent until proven guilty. As I said, it’s a figure-ground thing.

Kanizsa Triangle

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection 150: The Big IF

October 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Our outlooks on the world are governed by networks of electrochemical connections in our brains, in turn governed by the unique biochemical circumstances in which those networks were formed during earliest infancy and childhood, as well as by changes in neural connectivity resulting from subsequent life experience.

Our outlooks on the world determine our expectations. Our expectations determine how we extend ourselves into the world through personal behavior, which in turn determines how we receive world gestures into ourselves as episodes of meaningful experience.

How we take the world into ourselves influences our next round of behavior, which sets us up for the next cycle of feedback to be interpreted in light of our outlook.

Round and round we go on the continuous ride of expectancy and fulfillment in a looping engagement with a world we cannot know in itself but interpret nonetheless from our unique point of view within whatever situation we construe as our current reality.

Our ongoing loop of engagement with the world is none other than our personal life. Which is unlike any other life because our innermost electrochemical connectivity and our experience are unique to ourselves. So, too, are the values by which we guide our adaptation to what we take to be the outside world as an expression of our will to survive. Our minds are our unique, personal minds, our acts are our acts, our interpretations are our interpretations, our adaptation is our adaptation, our survival is our survival, our life is our life.

But that’s only the beginning. Imagine all the relationships each unique person has with those around her—including family, friends, society, pets, wildlife, vegetation, landscapes, habitats, institutions, governments, cultures—all those loops reaching out from each person into his surrounding milieu, generating occasions for feedback, interpretation, and subsequent responses through actions, gestures, utterances, and so on.

Considering the complexity of our ongoing interactions, engagements, interrelationships—all different, all changing—we can appreciate the challenge of even the simplest human life we can imagine—that, say, of the infant, or the hermit in his mountain retreat. Add the necessity of keeping track of it all though learning and memory (and blessed forgetfulness of trivial details) so that our experience is more-or-less cumulative and orderly, it is a wonder each of us isn’t overwhelmed by the relentless flux of events in our personal worlds of  consciousness.

If in fact we are created equal, it is as equal experiments in the universe. Where many will adapt to the occasions of their lives and muddle through, others will succumb. Day after day, the issue is personal survival. If our respective sets of unique characteristics are a match for the conditions in which we strive, and our minds and bodies are up to the challenge, we will live another day. That is the big IF in whose shadow we awaken each day, and surrender to mock oblivion later on.

It is not that I am pitting my values and uniqueness against yours for the privilege of making it through till tomorrow. Living in the shadow of the big IF is the lot we share in common with humanity and all life. But it is not surprising that within that one lot, differences are inevitable. Those differences are part of the plan in setting us up for the ultimate test of survival. Those who are most adapted to their life circumstances will go on, while others stumble, and eventually collapse. That’s what it means to exist as one of Earth’s children.

But when one group or class takes advantage of another, using it to boost its own comfort and chances of survival—then campfires and bombardments will light the night sky in answer to such skullduggery. 

Human history is written in blood spilled by one group rising against another in response to unjust oppression for the sake of stealing a survival advantage. Every chapter tells of farmers standing against ranked troops, archers or rock throwers against those with guns who have invaded their land, suicide bombers killing as many innocents as possible, slaves against masters, workers against bosses, subjects against armies of kings and emperors, those out of power against those in power, and on and on. Power, ultimately, bestows a survival advantage upon those who possess it, depriving the powerless to an equal degree.

Consciousness matters because it is the gauge of our equality under the circumstances that prevail in our current social situation. We can tell our relative station in life by how others treat us. If we feel put upon, neglected, abused, under-represented, or generally at a disadvantage compared to others in our social realm, we will act according to our degree of disaffection. Nowhere is it written that one class should stride upon the bodies of its underlings. Nor is it decreed that the socially underprivileged must bow to their self-styled betters as exemplars of a more noble form of humanity.

Uniqueness is uniqueness; humanity is humanity. Each of us has an inherent right to equal treatment and respect. It is not up to us to impress others into serving our personal values and goals. If all do not stand for one, and one does not stand for all, we risk  elevating ourselves as higher beings more fit than the rest. Yet we are born to die—as everyone is—mortals first-to-last. If our uniqueness is to receive its due, it is as a proclamation that our respective gifts have equal worth as agents of survival in the universal experiment that is humanity. We do not know where the next great advance will arise—in what climate, habitat, nation, genome, or stream of consciousness.

We cannot see beyond the shadow of the big IF that falls equally upon us. Therefore it is not for us to weigh the value of others’ gifts. We can only manage our consciousness to make our unique selves happen as best we can under the circumstances that befall us—and insist on everyone’s right to do the same.

In this light, personal consciousness is not primarily a means for advancing ourselves beyond others, but rather a means of striving for sufficiency while recognizing we are in this life together and deserve equal chance to make ourselves happen—not as higher and lower beings, but as uniquely gifted members of our common humanity. Each of us is but one biochemical wonder among many with diverse outlooks and expectations, all with equal hopes of fulfillment in adapting to the world shadow that falls across us for the duration of our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 

 

 

(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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 (Copyright © 2009)

 

I am in Portland, Maine, at a conference on eelgrass restoration. The first day’s program is made up of speaker after speaker, delivering PowerPoint after PowerPoint, with occasional moderated panel discussions. Self-appointed warden of consciousness, now and again I let my eyes wander around the room, seeking stimulation, or relief from always peering at a screen showing data tables too small to read. Something about that band of dark wood trim around the walls under a pronounced overhang draws my attention time after time. It just doesn’t look right. A band of dark wood panels—like thin plywood—jutting at an angle out from the wall. Yet I see it the same way every time I find myself studying it.

 

regency-lights-1 Illustration 1. How the band of dark wood paneling looks to my eye on Day 1 of the eelgrass restoration conference at the Regency Hotel in Portland, Maine.

 

From 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., that paneling bothers me. Sticking out like the scales on a dry pinecone, it makes no sense. Who would ever pay good money for an effect that looks like the top of the paneling is peeling away from the wall in separate flakes? Each flake is a trapezoid, narrower on the top than the bottom. My sketch makes the side angles look the same, but actually they are asymmetrical. The shape is all wrong—wrong for my eyes, wrong for the room. I suffer from a bad case of perceptual dissonance.

          Then in late afternoon I get it. Those gaps between separate panels may look like empty wall space, but they are actually opalescent white glass (or plastic) light shades mounted against the band of paneling itself. The shades remind me of lights in art deco movie houses, though there they’d show red or gold, not white. All day I am seeing the panels as the dominant figure, but suddenly the lights leap out against the dark wood—and the whole structural detail makes perfect sense. Dissonance, begone! The lighting is so soft under the overhang that the 3-D lights cast no shadows to reveal their true shape or even their presence. Now that I notice the lights are white while the wall is pale green, I cannot restore my seeing to its former state of error.

 

regency-lights-2 Illustration 2. How the paneling appears on Day 2 of the conference, with lights mounted at equal intervals along the band of dark wood. The wood panels now appear to be back in place, flush against the wall.

 

On the second day of the conference, without the odd paneling to entertain my wandering gaze, I listen to what the speakers are actually saying. Certain words keep coming up again and again: nitrogen, watersheds, management. Attempting to convey maximum information in minimum time, few speakers actually take pains to enunciate clearly. They speak in a kind of code everyone in the room understands because they are already familiar with the vocabulary, so know what to expect. Nitrogen comes out as “ni’jen” or “ni’tjn”; watershed as “wash’d” or (without any vowel at all) “wshd” or even “wshh;” management in eelgrass speak is reduced to a short burst such as “mng’mn.” This manner of speaking conserves both time and energy, and though it’s rough on the English language, it suits the occasion perfectly. Audience expectations compensate for the lack of clear speaking, filling in gaps of consciousness much as families understand one another while speaking in codes honed to a spare minimum.

 

I am not a numbers man, so it strikes me at the conference how much time eelgrass researchers spend in coming up with right numbers for the water clarity threshold required for eelgrass shoots to grow into rich beds, or the total nitrogen concentration threshold to protect established beds from wasting away. Millions and even billions of dollars ride on those numbers—as in paying for secondary or tertiary sewage treatment in coastal towns and cities for the sake of eelgrass protection.

 

Every person at the conference values eelgrass as vital shallow-water habitat for flounder, cod, crab, lobster, and all sorts of estuarine life. When eelgrass goes, many of the species people love to eat go with it. How to prevent that from happening is what the eelgrass restoration conference is all about. When you sit down to dinner in a restaurant, eelgrass is far from your conscious mind. But the choices on the menu may very well be eelgrass-dependent, so it’s good to give thanks that a roomful of folks in Portland, Maine, celebrate eelgrass consciousness by working together on cold winter days to get their numbers right so they stand up in court.

 

My job, aside from presenting a poster on eelgrass variability in Taunton Bay, is, as consciousness warden, to make sure the building holds together until the conference concludes, and that speakers meet minimal standards of diction so the audience can get the gist of what they are trying to say.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

One way to study consciousness is to study activities people throw themselves into and are good at. As a species, we are good at making and doing things. Toys, furniture, weapons, art, and poetry are products of human consciousness, of the body and brain working together to reach a goal or produce a desired result. Every artifact is a reflection of human consciousness at work—planning, judging, choosing, doing.

 

I read a blog the other day that claimed Japanese haiku to be the simplest form of poetry, and therefore the easiest to create. I don’t believe that’s true—that haiku are either simple or easy—but they are relatively brief. And are certainly products of disciplined conscious endeavor. So what can haiku as a creative artifact tell us about consciousness?

 

Let’s take a look at four sample haiku. Right away, some will complain that these poems don’t satisfy the required syllable count. As we are taught in school, the 5-7-5 syllable sequence accords with a sacred formula that defines a haiku. Except that emphasis in Japanese haiku is indicated by words, not punctuation marks, and those words are written and read as part of the poem, whereas in English question and exclamation marks don’t add to the syllable count. Haiku in Japanese are written in one vertical line, not three horizontal lines. And most Japanese words end in vowel sounds, so Japanese haikus are flush with internal rhymes, but when translated, many of those words end in consonants, so there is no way to translate Japanese rhymes into English. Some teachers may like to teach rules for convenience, but when they distort the object of study, it is best to see through them to the true nature of the original form.

 

In this post I offer rough English translations of four haiku by the Japanese master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) as examples of consciousness reflected in a small number of words.

 

Example A.          on a bare branch

a crow is perched—

autumn evening

 

In this first example we are given the sensory image of a crow on a bare branch, and the idea (concept) that it is late in the year and late in the day. Images and ideas are integral parts of consciousness, but they arise in two different parts of the mind—the senses and conceptual memory. What Basho is doing in this poem is putting two aspects of consciousness together so they play off against each other, the experiential whole adding to more than the sum of its parts. This gets closer to the essence of haiku than counting syllables on our fingers or listening for rhymes.

 

What is the dynamic between image and concept in this poem? Do they support each other or are they in conflict? We sense the bare branch silhouetted against the dusk, the black crow not flying but clutching the branch. All the while knowing that days are getting colder and darker. The fall setting provides a conceptual frame for the specific image Basho gives us, frame and figure combining to fill us with a kind of bleak chill and emptiness. The time has come to get scarves and mittens out; it will get colder and darker before spring revives us again—if spring ever comes.

 

As I have written (see Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain), metaphor is also composed of two parts, the subject or tenor and the predicate or vehicle. The vehicle qualifies the tenor so we see it in a way that expresses our feeling toward a particular event. Haiku set up similar mutual interactions between their major parts, but not through equivalency or comparison. In this case, the image of branch and crow gives substance to the conceptual frame provided by knowing it is not only autumn but also late in the day. Yes, the two parts complement each other, reinforcing our understanding through reference to what we can see with our own eyes. The result is a feeling that is not actually conveyed by the language of the poem. Nowhere do words like sadness or gloom and doom appear to suggest foreboding at the approach of death—but we feel their chill nonetheless. Basho has taken us straight inside his conscious mind, without telling us in so many words what he wants us to feel.

 

Example B.          June rain

hollyhocks stare

where the sun should be

 

Phototropic hollyhocks turn with the sun. Even in the rain, they still follow the brightest part of the sky. Hollyhocks in the rain serve as the vehicle of this poem, the concrete image pointing to the subject or tenor, which can’t be shown at all because the sky is overcast. “Where the sun should be” is an idea, not a sensory image. Putting the image together with that idea, consciousness creates a sense of yearning for, or being faithful to, a desired presence that, in this case, is denied. This haiku is not about beautiful flowers but behavior dedicated to one who is absent, as the mind of the beloved is filled with thoughts of her lover so that she carries on in fond and familiar ways while he is away.

 

Example C.          old pond—

a frog leaps in

water sound

 

This is probably the most famous poem in the world, and also the most underappreciated to the extent of seeming trivial. An old pond is a venerable aspect of nature. A frog is best known by its croak in the night. Here “water sound” is ambiguous, but certainly results from the frog leaping into the pond, which swallows it in one gulp. The tenor of this haiku is not the pond itself but the frog leaping into it. The concrete vehicle is the sound emanating from that unremarkable event—not a rude croak as expected but the subtle slip of a lithe body merging with its element. The surprise of that sound unifies the poem in a wholly suitable manner that the reader does not anticipate. Like the punch line of a joke, it shocks while at the same time fulfilling the expectations aroused by the situation—a frog by a pond.

 

Example D.          coolness

the clean lines

of the wild pine

 

Here again, image and idea combine in arousing a feeling within us. In this case an appreciation for the spare but elegant simplicity of the wild pine (as opposed to the domesticated form of a stunted pine in a pot) as viewed at a particular time of year when it stands apart from more complex deciduous trees that have lost their leaves. The tenor-subject is the concept of coolness in the fall; the vehicle-predicate the sensory image of a free-growing pine sharpened by consciousness to emphasize the uncluttered outlines of branches and stem. The surprise comes from applying a visual image as the avatar or physical incarnation of a season noted for declining temperatures. It’s not winter—yet, but rapid changes are taking place in the landscape of conscious expectations. The pine comes into its own as temperatures fall. Which comes as an abrupt revelation to the poet passing along the road through the forest.

 

Haiku use figurative language to convey aspects of consciousness that cannot be told in conventional terms. Their meaning is more to be sensed or felt than declared in so many words. Like metaphors, haiku thrive on the relationship between sensory images and conceptual memory, combining the two to convey the power of the ineffable. Where metaphors achieve coherence through implied similarities, haiku rely on simple juxtaposition to bring images and ideas into unity.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

How were you brought up? Did you have to go tinkle, pee-pee, wee-wee, take a pee or a piss, urinate, make water, or go number 1? In my family we spoke of breasts as huddies, younger members often having a giggle fit of self-consciousness when we tried to utter the word. Each of us is born into a language community or, more likely, a set of nested or overlapping language communities (family, friends, school, town, polite society, etc.). It was the conventional terms and ways of speaking in these communities we dutifully mimicked in acquiring the natural language we took as our native tongue.

 

The way we spoke at home was our family brand of literal language, which always said what we meant it to say because that’s how we were brought up. Other families were weird in speaking somewhat differently. Ours was normal language, theirs a twisted variation that seemed foreign. My friend Billy I. always said brefuk when he meant breakfast. Bob S. turned the sound of -ing into -een, as in goeen skeen for going skiing. Families used a variety of terms in referring to brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents.

 

But all in all, we learned how normal people spoke in our neck of the woods. That was the neighborhood code governing literal language—as if by rule—but actually more by the flow of custom and convention in what people actually said. Out of the give and take of everyday life, we formed a language-using community in which meanings were mutually understood. We usually didn’t have to think about it, it just happened.

 

Literal language conforms to the abstract ideal that speakers use in recognizing certain phrases as being meaningful in their community. This ideal is independent of time and place, user or occasion. It is not a matter of rules but of anticipating the range of things that might be said in different situations. Literal language is predictable or probable language. The language we are likely to meet in daily life.

 

Figurative or metaphorical language is something else again. It defies the linguistic expectancies we so painstakingly piece together in experience. Literal language conforms to the code; metaphorical language jumps over the code to create a new way of speaking—of making meaning. “You’re a turkey,” “a skunk,” “a snake in the grass.” Literal language conforms to what we expect people say on a given occasion. Metaphors play against those expectations in surprising us with something new. Suddenly consciousness bursts on the scene, for speaker and listener both.

 

As an example, I offer two sentences by Alexandra Vacroux from her article, How to warm US-Russia relations (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 26, 2009). “At the moment, the Russian bear is wounded.” She goes on to cite Russian anxiety and insecurity in the global commodity crisis, dealings with Ukraine, a fearsome new treason law. Then sums up her position, “Injured animals are dangerous, and need to be approached carefully.” Russia/Russian bear/Injured animal—this is a three-tiered metaphor that picks up powerful meaning as it develops.

 

Metaphorical language involves improbable or unexpected utterances which jolt us out of our meaning-making habits. It stretches our conventions of understanding by violating the expected match between expression and occasion. This creates a tension between what was expected and what was delivered. Shazam! We are fully awake and paying attention. Metaphor is not only a new way of saying but a new way of meaning. Without warning, it gets to the core of language.

 

Metaphor rocks not only our expectations of usage but the way we size-up the situations to which we apply language in the first place. It arises from (and invokes) a novel perspective as an alternative to the conventional point of view. Metaphor forces us to expand ourselves and become different people than convention would have us be. It forces us to outgrow our customary limitations.

 

If the conventional point of view is based upon unwitting acceptance of words meaning what they say, then metaphor is based upon a rival accounting for the world and its language. Words in that new world mean what speakers intend them to say, and it is the hearer’s job to figure out what that might be. Whoa! This is a new game entirely. We can’t just nod “Uh-uh,” but have to consciously wrestle with what we are hearing. As if we were inventing language all over again.

 

Which is one of the primary roles of figurative language. To rock us back on our heels so we pay deliberate attention to what is being said. And to what we want to say, but aren’t sure how. Metaphors represent alternate ways of accounting for the facts of daily life. Or more accurately, for the phenomena we encounter in consciousness, which are more than once removed from daily life. Metaphor does nothing less than force the sleepy language community to wake up and reinvent itself.

 

A metaphor is a little theory offered in opposition to the “natural” way of finding meaning in the world because, in truth, the meanings we find are often the very meanings we planted (or assumed were) there in the first place. Convention salts the mine of phenomena with meaning, while metaphor insists on uncovering the true gem itself.

 

By what phenomenologists call “the natural attitude,” we generally take it as given that the world our minds present to us is the one and only world that is out there within reach of our senses. Metaphor raises the possibility of an unnatural attitude by which we have to discover that outside world through probing exploration. Metaphor requires deliberate attention to such exploration by disrupting conventional ways of understanding the world. The point of metaphor is to not get caught napping. Don’t take meaning for granted. Question it. Check it out. Which requires active pursuit of meaning as a wild and elusive quarry rather than the passive acceptance of familiar (domestic) conventions.

 

Metaphor is exceptional language requiring deliberate and self-conscious attempts to establish meaning. That is why discussions of semantics and much of philosophy are set in metaphorical terms. To confront the mysterious outer world requires us to go beyond words that mean what they say to a new language that can venture beyond convention into the unknown. The intent is to transcend everyday, literal efforts at meaning-making. That effort requires nothing less than transcendent language itself. The language of metaphor.

 

(See Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain for two other examples of metaphor.)

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

Two blogs ago, I dealt with music’s power, emotion, and immediacy in reaching into consciousness. Music doesn’t have to wait for the brain to tell consciousness what it means. Even in the case of program music, the program (meaning) is external to the music, as in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, thunderstorm and all. The storm is in the program you know about, not the music you hear. If you don’t know the program, then the music is all.

 

In this blog I will make a start at dealing with sensory phenomena that elicit meanings in experience so that the being of sensory patterns is fulfilled by the meanings they intend in consciousness. Spoken and written language offer examples of experiences composed of meaningful patterns, as do common signs and symbols such as traffic lights, sirens, and pictures of celebrities and famous places. Red traffic lights mean “stop” because we were taught to put the two together at an early age. The meaning is not in the red itself; it is in our brains which interpret that color as telling us to stop.

 

Consciousness is the place where sensory patterns (phenomena) and meanings are coupled together. When that happens, we get it! We understand. That is, we make a connection between two very different aspects of mental life—percepts from our senses and concepts from memory. Meaning does not reside in the world. It inhabits our minds, retained as latent concepts waiting to be activated by a relevant pattern in one sensory channel or another.

 

Meaning emerges when summoned by sensory phenomena we have been trained (or inspired) to receive as information, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned that the ringing of a bell meant food was about to be served. Information requires a context or situation to make it meaningful; without one or the other, it’s just meaningless sensory data. We learn early on that vocal utterances (words, phrases, sentences) mean something to others, and by imitating those others in appropriate situations, those utterances come to mean somewhat the same thing to us.

 

The following anecdote from one of my mother’s friends, told as a childhood reminiscence cherished for almost eighty years, provides a good example of one such early attempt to connect a sensory image with its meaning:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

To be human is to strive to put meanings to sounds and appearances, and when deceived, to try again. If we spell “banana,” “m-o-o-n,” while those around us disagree, do we not remember it all our lives, along with all the other times our judgments were found to be out of joint? Do we not learn from such occasions? Is any experience not centered upon the desire to attach meanings appropriately to the sensory patterns we pluck from our situations as we construe them? We belong to a tribe of meaning-makers. We may not always be wise, but we are ever game to try again.

 

“Look, out the window, dear.” “Goggie.” “And over there” “Goggie.” “And what about that one?” “Goggie.” “No, that’s not a doggie, it’s a kitty.” “Kikky.”

 

Slowly over time, concepts accrue in memory as categories containing common features derived from a series of experiences somewhat resembling one another. When we fit a new pattern in experience together with such a category, we see that pattern as an example extending or fulfilling the series. The coupling can be so tight, it’s almost as if the pattern exuded the meaning from its own nature—as if the phenomenon were meaningful in itself. Which someone else may intend, but the meaning is in the mind, not the phenomenon.

 

Meanings are always our doing. Depending on their situations and experience, different people will cast a variety of meanings onto one and the same sensory pattern of being. I cannot digest gluten, which is in everything made of wheat, rye, or barley. Donuts, pizza, seven-grain bread, and chocolate-chip cookies may appeal to the masses, but I avoid them as if made of anthrax flour. To me they mean poison, not party treats, not wholesome food.

 

Whether you see true-believers or infidels in front of you depends on how you regard them in light of your past experience. In themselves they are neither because each is a unique being, not a category filler. Whether a knife is a useful tool or a bloody weapon depends on which category you sort it into when you wield it at the moment.

 

I’m living in Cambridge (some years ago). I wake up one night to hear someone in the street calling “fa” in a hoarse voice. Looking for his dog, I figure. Or his father. “Fa,” “fa,” he goes on. And on. Little Johnny One Note. “Fa.” “Fa.” I hear the sounds, but it holds no meaning for me. I doze off. Then it strikes me—he isn’t crying “Fa,” he’s yelling “Fire” at the top of his old lungs. I look out the window. Flames are shooting from the roof of the house across the street. I call the fire department.

 

Meaning-making can be a matter of survival. If we get it wrong, we may wake up dead. Our minds have evolved to do the best we can to match events with appropriate meanings in the situations we are in. What’s that noise downstairs? The wind? Noisy shutter? The cat? Burglar? Probably the furnace.

 

The matching works both ways: phenomena can seek meanings, and meanings can seek sensory presentations. If you’re in a hungry situation, you can start to visualize dinner. I remember a woman saying, “Men, you know how they are.” The meaning was already there; she didn’t have to spell it out. Which is like an old Quaker lady asking a friend of mine, “Is thee a member of the one true faith?” She was a particular meaning waiting to happen. More of us are like that than not. We broadcast meaningful expectations and hope the world will fill in the dotted lines.

 

Sometimes we don’t have either a phenomenon or a meaning to begin with. We’ve lost our bearings. What will tomorrow (the future) bring? How will our present situation develop, and what will it mean for us? There’s a lot of that around these days, what with the changing of the White House guard, the recession, global warming, wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, the national debt. . . . In times like these, anxiety rules. Meaning keeps its distance. Stress is on the rise, which upsets consciousness. Dire or chaotic may be the best words we can come up with in describing our state of affairs. Invest in fortune tellers and astrologers; I expect them to thrive.

 

In the end, when we confront the full significance of our mortality, does anything remain but the tarnished spiral of our mortal coil, a shadowy track in the dust, bequeathed to those who stay behind on chance that someone will fit it to some kind of meaning?

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Reflection 15: One-upmanship

October 30, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

Yesterday I had surgery to remove a cataract from my right eye. Today I am going in for a follow-up visit to my ophthalmologist. On the way, my designated driver introduces me to her colleague, one I shall refer to as Dolly.

         

Driver. This is Steve. He is going for a checkup after cataract surgery yesterday.

 

Dolly. I know about cataracts. My son-in-law is an ophthalmologist. One of my best friends is an ophthalmologist in Washington D.C., actually an ophthalmologist neurosurgeon, one of only three on the East Coast.

 

What could I say to that? She was not interested in reading my state of mind, she was too busy broadcasting her own state with 250 kilowatts. I thought she must be nervous to introduce herself in such a heavy-handed fashion. Perhaps an only child used to ruling the roost. Assertive at any rate, and quite uninterested in meeting someone not part of the life situation she relied on to structure her interactions with strangers.

 

We have all had experiences like this, speaking at cross-purposes with others tuned to different wavelengths than our own. They commonly underwrite our words with their meanings, and lead the conversation off on their own tangent. When I say we live in different life worlds, I really mean it. Those respective worlds are in our heads, the seat of our identities, where they color everything we do and say. We are genetically unique, neurologically unique, experientially unique—why should we ever expect the Dollys we meet to measure up to our expectations? Or expect ourselves to fit within the envelope of their expectations? We should always ask, “What planet are you from?” Every once in a while we might meet an Earthling who shares the same frame of reference we do. If we merely assume we speak the same language, we are setting ourselves up for certain disappointment.

 

It is not true that our conscious minds run in parallel courses. Extended to infinity, there is no law that says they must meet at some point way out there.

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Reflection 10: Diagnosis

October 21, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

In the mid-1960s, I was in the hospital undergoing a week of diagnostic tests. It was a teaching hospital maintained by a distinguished university. Every day my doctor led students like so many white-clad ducklings to the door of my room, where they ogled me in my bed, and murmured faint quacking sounds out in the hall where I couldn’t hear what they said. I remember my insides being insulted in the most intimate fashion as if I wasn’t conscious or even there. But I was there and remember the week as painful, harrowing, and humiliating. It’s hard being reduced to an experimental subject on a par with a slab of raw pork. Barium enema, upper and lower GI series, Sigmoidoscopy—I remember them to this day.

Worst of all was the consultation at the end of my stay. I reported as instructed to the Great Doctor’s office, a huge, bare room with an ornate desk in the middle facing the door. The room was dark, the only light coming from a green-shaded lamp on the desk, reflecting from my medical folder onto the heavy mass of my benefactor’s jowls from below. “I thought you had cystic fibrosis,” he said, “but you don’t.” Long pause. “What do I have?” “I don’t know, I have done everything I can for you.” I saw immediately it was my fault. I had made him seem unknowing and foolish in front of his ducklings. That was the end of that.

 

Thirty-five years later I found out I had celiac disease, and had had it my entire life. That’s what the Great Doctor might have found if it hadn’t been masked by presumed symptoms of cystic fibrosis. It was all out in the open; he just didn’t see it. Just as I didn’t see the mustard jar when it was right in front of me on the refrigerator shelf (see Reflection 3: Mea Culpa). Instead of mapping my symptoms onto his superior understanding, the Great Doctor had struggled to map his suppositions onto my innards. They didn’t jibe, so the case was closed. Except it wasn’t a case, it was my life, and I went confusedly onward as I had been going up till then, no wiser than before.

 

Consciousness gives us a chance to put our judgments out there in the world. And even more importantly, to evaluate how effective our actions are in accomplishing what we set out to do. It persists in a looping continuum, changing with the feedback we get. That way our true situation grows clearer over time. Our judgment improves, our actions become more appropriate to our circumstances as we come to understand them. Or it can if we let it by taking full responsibility for our awareness as a fallible guess or estimation. Which sometimes, as the Great Doctor illustrates, we don’t like to do.

 

Men don’t like to ask directions of strangers because it seemingly lowers their status. They like to be right all along. Consciousness is anything but rational. It has much to do with my place—my standing—in my social situation. That can have serious consequences in clouding our vision. Professionals don’t like to admit it when they are wrong. They often press on when they might well rethink what they are doing. Carry on Pretending, the Brits might call it, if they made consciousness into a movie. As they could do in producing a documentary about the causes of the current credit crunch, or conduct of the Iraq war. Men bring such things about because they, like my doctor, aren’t paying attention to, or even looking for, feedback. They continue to roll right up to the crash.

 

Women, unlike my doctor, tend to care more about social situations, and about maintaining them in good order. They thrive on feedback (sometimes called gossip), and tuning their judgment to the facts as they come in. They care primarily for and about people more than they care about reputations or status. That’s a gross generalization, but my life experience tells me there’s something to it.

 

As I have said before in this blog, we find what we expect to find. And if we don’t, then we can take that as an opportunity for redefining our search. Consciousness is a rough estimation that can grow sharper through trial and error. In fact, in my case, that’s the only way I have learned anything in my life. By falling on my face, picking myself up, and wondering where I stepped wrong. Then taking care to avoid such missteps in the future.

 

We are all diagnosticians, trying to figure what has gone wrong and how we can fix it. Consciousness has a lot of play in it, room for error. Our merit and survival depend largely on expecting that error, and being prepared to do something about it when it crosses the threshold of awareness.

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