How to respond to events is always our call as a reflection of our integrity, maturity, and intelligence in meeting challenges head-on by suiting our behavior to what we feel is called for in the moment, drawing on strengths, skills, and inclinations we have built-up in living the lives we have led as preparation for making this particular judgment.

The “I” is the seat of life’s engagements because, having access to them all, it is the seat of perception, memory, meaning, emotion, judgment, and drive of the life force in a particular body. It is the seat of the self because it is at the core of our identity, who we are to ourselves as seen from inside our situated intelligence.

The self’s job is to find meaning in sensory impressions, and to channel that meaning forward into a course of purposive action.

A good portion of the self is an emergent property of the brain with its neurons, ions, and chemicals, but it is not limited to that physical organ because its reach extends fore and aft, from sensing incoming energy from the world to looking ahead to outgoing action in the world beyond body and brain.

The self is situated in the flow of energy through its portals, the flow of traffic through pathways in the brain, and outward into the world, which it extrapolates from awareness by paying attention to particular sensory features as inciters of meaning and significance.

No, this is not the prevailing view in neuroscientific circles, but it fits the facts when mind, will, and judgment are allowed to be real, and the brain is accepted as the vehicle or vessel of mind, a vehicle such as an automobile that knows nothing of its driver’s plans, but serves the will of that driver nonetheless. The car has no idea where it is going; that understanding has been reserved for the mind of the driver (or now her GPS unit as prompted by her mind).

Experience is the cumulative ability we accrue through the years to judge situations in light of our own wits, our personal grasp of how the world works and how we ourselves work as complementary members of that world. Even inside our black boxes, we live within whatever awareness we can eke of what’s happening around and within us so that we can make an appropriate response.

I could not have written these thoughts when I was thirty or sixty years old. I had to wait until I was in my eighties to discover the audacity within myself to feel that I knew what I was talking about and that I wanted to give the world an opportunity to consider my message.

In the meantime, I have read works by thinkers such as Gerald M. Edelman, Joseph LeDoux, Michael Gazzaniga, Douglas Hofstadter, and shorter pieces by a great many soldiers in the trenches of neuroscience.

But my primary source for over thirty years has been my personal witness to the workings of my own mind, not to be confused with my brain, of which, concretely speaking, I am wholly oblivious.

To me, as the helmsman of my own vessel, it makes sense to learn from my personal experience of being conscious while others tend to the detailed complexity of the vessel itself. As I see it, without a helmsman, that vessel is worse than useless, it becomes a hazard to others. I want to be the best helmsman I can be, which is why I pay so much attention to, and learn so much from, the foibles of my own mind.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

We all have a right to claim that we were behind the door when manuals for our minds were handed out, but there are no such manuals, and never have been. Instead, we are given a life of trial and error. If we live long enough to make all the standard mistakes, along with those we invent on our own, by the time we die we will be familiar with one mind at least, so should count ourselves lucky.

In 2011 when I was 79 years old, having observed the workings of my own mind for thirty years, I brought out Consciousness: The Book, which deals with my particular brand of consciousness–too late to do me much good.

My aim now is to help others undertake introspective studies of their minds before they max out their normal life expectancies in partying for a living, or perhaps studying, working, going to the beach or the movies–whatever seems a good idea at the time, but diverts attention without helping them to know themselves any more than they already do.

Yes, you can approach your own mind through the well paved avenues of psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and all the rest, but since each one of us is unique, I don’t recommend -ologizing yourself, which is bound to lead you into the error of confusing your mind with the road you are traveling at the time. Instead, I recommend treating your personal uniqueness as a virtue to be pursued to the end. No matter if it’s a sample of only one. To amount to something, you have to count as something. You have to count as something, namely, yourself.

I have found that a good way to to begin a program of personal introspection is by considering your likes and dislikes–what cheers you over against what upsets you. Our consciousness is driven by such polarities all our lives, so monitoring our engagements (projects, relationships) is relatively easy in terms of how we feel about what we are paying attention to at the moment. Like now, this very instant. How’s it going? Good, bad, or so-so? That is, is your present engagement progressing as you’d hoped it would, is it being impeded by some obstacle, or just lurching along ready to veer toward the better or worse?

By observing the state of what we’re trying to do, we can get a grip on our goals, our feelings, our tools and equipment, our skills, hopes, fears, our energy level, and so on. We come to see ourselves standing amid several dimensions of the expectant consciousness we bring to bear on the engagement we currently have under way.

How do you do?, you ask yourself. What’s up? How’s it going? Yes, it’s OK to talk to yourself. That’s what introspection is for–getting to know yourself. Not looking at things on the outside (as if you could see them), but inside your mind where the action is. Just checking. Things running smoothly? Or perhaps a bit rough? Hey, this is your life! It matters what sort of answer you give when you pay attention to yourself by asking personal questions. How is it with me? I says to myself, What’s been keeping you?; I thought you’d never ask. Maybe you didn’t care, or didn’t like me very much.

Once the ice has been broken, there’s no end of things to get into, questions to ask yourself, things to explore and find out. In the past, you may have been shushed by others who were preoccupied when you asked one question too many. But when you’re both the questioner and answerer in your own best interest, it’s astounding what a simple mic check can lead to.

So that’s the preface to my personal manual on introspection–if I were to write it today–which I just did in the form of this post to my blog on consciousness.

How are things going with you? What’s on your mind just now? Perhaps not introspection, but certainly related to introspection, the skill no one mentioned to you or taught you in school.

I remain, as ever, y’r friend, –Steve

Reflection 195: Inaction

April 5, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this what we look like?

 

Reflection 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.

 

 

Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

Like Job, Samuel Pepys, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau would have been a blogger in his day if he’d had access to the Web. As it is, he took pencil and paper with him on his excursions through fields and woods, so logging the progress of his experiences from 1837 to 1862. As in Walden, Thoreau is ever witness to two worlds at once, both to his sensory world and his charged mindfulness of that world. On November 21, 1850, a month from the winter solstice with the sun shining at a slant to the landscape, he wrote:

 

Some distant angle in the sun where a lofty and dense white pine wood, with mingled gray and green, meets a hill covered with shrub oaks, affects me singularly, reinspiring me with all the dreams of my youth. It is a place far away, yet actual and where we have been.

 

In the next sentence he replays the image, trying to get it right:

 

I saw the sun falling on a distant white pine wood whose gray moss-covered stems were visible amid the green, in an angle where this forest abutted on a hill covered with shrub oaks. It was like looking into dreamland. It is one of the avenues to my future.

 

Which opens onto the following comment:

 

Certain coincidences like this are accompanied by a certain flash as of hazy lightning, flooding all the world suddenly with a tremulous serene light which it is difficult to see long at a time.

 

Perhaps he has been nibbling on certain mushrooms, but whatever the reason, on this day Thoreau’s consciousness is flooded as by hazy lightning, requiring great effort to couple the concrete being of the scene with the meaning he has to offer it as derived from his prior experience. Yet he is deeply moved. In fact, in the very next paragraph being and meaning become wholly decoupled and Thoreau finds himself at a loss for ready understanding of his world. He is wholly unprepared to stand under it on the basis of who he is. Which is not a bad thing because it leads to a profound insight into his relationship with the world.

 

I saw Fair Haven Pond with its island, and meadow between the island and the shore, and a strip of perfectly still and smooth water in the lee of the island, and two hawks, fish hawks perhaps, sailing over it. I did not see how it could be when I cease to understand it and see that I did not realize or appreciate it before, but I get no further than this. How adapted these forms and colors to my eye! A meadow and an island! What are these things? Yet the hawks and the ducks keep so aloof! and Nature is so reserved! I am made to love the pond and the meadow, as the wind is made to ripple the water.

 

I am converting Thoreau’s journal entry into a blog because it so clearly reveals the structure of conscious experience in balancing (or synchronizing) concrete sensory input with abstract or conceptual meaning supplied by the observer because that is how we are made. That is the essence of consciousness as selected for over the millions of years it has taken to evolve into the form we employ today. Indeed, each of us is made (has evolved) to understand the world she lives in precisely in terms of the life experiences she has accrued to this day. That balance, then, is the basis for extending our individual streams of consciousness into unknown tomorrows.

 

Above all, we are made to do all this with a strong feeling of love (or perhaps fear, yearning, hurt, anger, curiosity, etc.) that sets the tone for this particular excursion. In consciousness, it all comes together—sensory phenomena, personal meanings, feelings, and a sense that the coherent unity of these different elements represents a fitness to who we are as representatives of our people (tribe, society, culture, species) in this way at this time in this place.

 

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