Evolution’s achievement of consciousness is a collaborative effort between animal life and its Earthly environment.

Consciousness does not reside in the brain so much as it is a product of life’s engagement with its home planet. When Henry Adams walked out of Chartres Cathedral a changed man and wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the cathedral remained as it was before he arrived, undiminished, unconsumed.

Half of Adams’ engagement came from his attention, concentration, and action; the other half was the cathedral’s doing as a provocative source of engaging stimulation.

If we give ourselves to life, life gives us back in kind. Consciousness springs from just such rounds of give-and-take. It is not something we possess, or have a right to. It is something we invite to happen by opening ourselves to our environment, and trading with it as we are able.

I didn’t need cognitive neuroscience to tell me that, nor a suite of fMRIs and other a la mode research apparatus. What I needed was half of the mind that has sustained me through life, engaged with the other half of environmental stimulation that, taken together, have spurred my thinking, awareness, and experience all my days, including the writing of this blog.

As phenomenologists say, consciousness is always of one thing or another. It isn’t a thing in itself so much as a reacher-toward things. That is called intentionality. As intentional beings, we are always intent on solving this or that problem.

We all start out in life as a quickened egg—largest cell in the human body. And then in nine months run through the developmental cycle it took life itself three-and-a-half billion years to complete. We are modern-day miracles, inventing our own brand of consciousness during our brief stay in the womb.

Everyone’s consciousness is unique because the specifics of its origins are unique—DNA, grandparents, parents, immune system, etc., plus engagements in the womb from conception on. Engagements initiated by our genes, but of which we get the gist and do our part as birth approaches.

We are like an impromptu melody played in the distance, only that melody is inside us, at the core of our being on Earth. We are here not only because our parents conceived us, but because Earth has provided them with the wherewithal to produce us. We are Earthlings from our earliest beginnings, with our own ration of Earthly (perhaps universal) consciousness.

We become citizens of the cosmos that truly begat us, so are eager to show our stuff to anyone who will engage us during our brief stay in the area.

The view of consciousness I offer in this blog is very different from the version that neuroscientists are so relentlessly searching for in the brain. Consciousness is not made of matter in physical form; it is an interaction between specific lifeforms and the worlds they are born to, as Henry Adams was born to a world containing Chartres Cathedral. Scientists won’t find that magnificent structure in anyone’s brain because (as in Adam’s case) it’s at the other end of an engagement that went on for years under all sorts of weather, light, shifts in attitude, and altering comprehension.

I have tried to keep up with published writings about consciousness, but I have yet to find any that make sense to me on the topic as I personally experience it in living my own life. And introspection is so out of fashion in the twenty-first century that I am not likely to meet up with any before I die.

Am I that eccentric? That far out on the fringe? That much of a deviant? I think not. From my standpoint, others are barking up the wrong tree, looking for a physical state of some kind, when consciousness is an ongoing process of engagement between a living mind and whatever object of its notice gives a jolt sufficient to draw attention.

Loops of engagement are way more than feedback loops. Rather than stabilizers, they are disrupters, attention getters, annoyers, or announcers of success. In short, situation creators. They set the parameters of intelligence in such a configuration that arouses a meaningful response leading to a review of options and judgment of what is to be done.

As I visualize them, loops of engagement are kindlers of consciousness leading to appropriate action. They start with disturbing perceptions that create meaningful situations to which intelligence reacts with discernment in judging what plan of action to put into effect. They are mind organizers whose job is to transform perceptions into behaviors suitable to the occasion.

Essential to our humanity, none of us would get through the day without one. And probably not be likely to get through the next five seconds. I call them loops because they keep going on and on. Coming back to slightly altered situations, tweaking a little here and there, more like a helix than a circle, but running on till the job is done. Then it’s on to the next job, and the one in line after that.

Go to the store for groceries, lay out the kitchen, make dinner, serve it up, eat it, congratulate the cook, clear the table, wash the dishes, put dishes away, lay things out for breakfast. How else would we manage to get through the day? If such engagements didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

But they do exist in what William James called the stream of consciousness, the endless succession of one-thing-after-another that we dub collectively conscious life. They are our tools for building a succession of worlds about ourselves as we go through the day.

Loops of engagement are world-puzzle solvers that connect our minds to our mysterious environment, but that have to keep checking because that environment is bound to change. We can never get it just right. The world is too complex, too dynamic, too flexible, too uncertain—and our view too limited and schematic. Whatever we think it is in the instant is bound to be wrong.

So we play the game of successive approximation. Moving in the direction of certain understanding—but like the bounding hare, the world always gets away from us. The more certain we are that we understand what’s going on, the more apt we are to be wrong. Our firmest beliefs are so much foam on the waves. Life is more like splashing around in shallow water than swimming in a straight lane.

Loops of engagement are the best tool we’ve got for figuring out our situation at the moment. They never stop; they never give up; they never claim success. Like our streams of consciousness, they just keep going, until we fall into bed too tired to keep up the pursuit.

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(Copyright © 2009)

Hand motions are planned in the pre-motor areas of the brain, so in a very personal sense such motions represent activity in those areas. As such, they can be seen to map out neural activity in the brain that planned and executed them. As an example, I offer this score by Johan Sebastian Bach as a map of neural activity at the focus of his conscious attention.

  Bach

On any given staff, pitch is told by the vertical placement of notes, development of tonal relationships in time by the sequence of notes along the horizontal dimension. We think of Bach as composing music, but another way of looking at him is as a mapper of his own mind in two dimensions—in sound first, then notation used to represent the original as a basis for subsequent performances. Whatever their medium, creative people give us representations of their conscious neural activity. Art in that sense is more revealing than we often suppose. Can anything be more intimate than the mental processes of a particular man or woman focused on a project of importance in personal awareness?

For another example, take this schematic diagram of a football play Coach asks his players to learn by tomorrow’s practice. Based on his personal experience, it comes straight off the top of his brain.

Football Play Diagram-72

Another diagram, another series of gestures, another map of someone’s mind. It isn’t just artists who turn themselves inside-out in performing their duties. Everyone does it. When Mom cooks dinner or bakes a cake, her brain tells her how to do it. The tasty results are as much a map of her mind as Bach’s scores are of his. Maybe she followed a recipe in cooking from scratch; maybe she opened a package of cake mix. However she did it, it was her brain that told her how to proceed. Even the historian reconstructing the battle of Marathon represents the understanding of his mind, mapping his neural workings in the process. If he gets it right, it is his brain that approves and tells him so.

Battle_of_Marathon_72

When the Persians (red) moved in from the coast where they landed, Greek forces (blue) lined up in opposition. As the Persians attacked, the Greeks boxed them in on three sides, leaving escape to the rear as an option to their bold pincer formation. The Greek center fell back, but the flanking forces moved in. Crunch. The Persians lost 6,400 men, the Greeks 192. Olympic runner Pheidippides raced from Marathon to Athens with news of the Greek victory: “Rejoice, we conquer!” he gasped, then fell dead in a dramatic conclusion to the first marathon. The map above is a schematic representation of Persian and Greek minds engaging on the plain at Marathon.

Below is an intimate portrait of my own mind in charting results of a study of breeding horseshoe crabs in 2007. My hunch from earlier seasons was that water temperature exerts a strong influence on horseshoe crab mating behavior. Wanting to find out how true that was, I plotted the number of crabs that showed up (colored bars) along with shoreline water temperature (purple line) each day through the breeding season. I counted the crabs and read the thermometer for thirty-eight days in a row, so my brain was very much involved in the project.

HSC-Egypt-72

Results showed that for the first half of the breeding season, the number of crabs correlates closely with water temperature, but after that, the temperature becomes irrelevant. By the time the correlation breaks down, nest-digging and egg-laying are effectively done for the year. After that, water temperature doesn’t make any difference as far as the crabs are concerned. When it begins to cool in September and October, they retreat to deeper water and prepare to hibernate from November through the winter. The above chart shows actual mating horseshoe crabs and water temperatures reduced to data in my mind, then plotted to reveal the pattern of relationship between them I was looking for. Greetings from my mind to your mind.

My last map is a self-portrait of my own mind contemplating itself in December 2005. The red vertical line on the left side represents the motor (muscle movement) or output pole of my mental being; the blue vertical line on the right represents the perceptual or input pole. My purpose in making the map was to show various parallel loops connecting the two poles to make a whole person. The vertical arrows (4.) on the right suggest the relationship between mental effort and mental economy on different levels of mental activity. Full consciousness at the bottom requires greater mental effort than the reflex arc near the top.

On Level 1. I act in the mysterious world and receive feedback from that world—but nowhere am I aware of goings-on in that world in or of themselves. Level 2. shows five internal connections (dashed blue arrows) between the two poles as they complete the loop of experience, but below the threshold of awareness. Level 3. illustrates various possibilities for linking perception to action via the many aspects of consciousness (yellow area), only a selection of which are apt to be in play at any one time. The Hat Switch on the right side of Level 3. represents the choice of perspectives I have available in responding to my self-placement in different situations. 

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Imagine a mind that can schematically conceive and depict itself! Not in any external world familiar in being what it is but an internal world that imparts a familiar feel to the world it devises on the basis of feedback it gets when it directs gestures toward the outside mystery and interprets the signals that come back. Here is the only world that can be called real, on the inside, as perceived, made meaningful through interpretation, and then acted upon to maintain the flow through the loop of experience in a state of alertness and vigilance.

To update this 2005 map I would add another dashed line on Level 2. to represent the mirror neuron system which allows me to mimic the actions of others. I would also play up the role of feelings in affecting every aspect of experience. But as a gross simplification of one mind’s relationship to the universe, I offer this version as background to my general approach in consciously coming to grips with my own mind.

Everything we do is an outward and visible-audible-tangible sign of coordinated neural activity in the brain and other parts of the body, some accessible to consciousness, some not. We already sense that when we look deep into someone’s eyes and find them looking back into our own. But by relying overmuch on language as we do in everyday life, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that words can say it all—and so belittle everything else as an avenue of interpersonal connection. By attending to every gesture, every nonverbal utterance, every change of posture and expression, and every artifact as I am suggesting here, we can boost our looping connection with other beings by opening ourselves to more extensive feedback and engagement with worlds far different from our own.

heron-stalking_10-84

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 I am on snowshoes in deep woods, making my own trail. I don’t know where I am but I am not lost. I can always follow my track back among the trees to where I started. Amazed at what I am doing, I weave among randomly placed trees, shrubs, ledges. On a steep slope, no less! Yet I keep traversing the slope and do not collide with a single stem or limb. How do I do it? I see trees ahead, approach them, then move around them. They grow larger in my visual field as I near and then pass them. Everything changes as I go, but I do not lose my balance. It’s as if I had a chart of these sloping woods in my mind, and could navigate by that chart. I don’t have to keep reorienting myself at every step, even though everything looks so different. I know my brain is working hard to keep me going without falling, yet I am perfectly calm. Looking about, I think I have never been in a more beautiful place on this Earth. This is the place, I think to myself, this is the place.

Now at a different season, I am sitting on a ledge of local bedrock by the edge of the bay, looking northwest, watching the sunset. It is high summer and, since the wind died down, I am enjoying the stillness. Not only enjoying but reflecting it by remaining perfectly motionless. Earth is rotating away from the sun, and so am I. Other than that, I am still. To me it looks as if the sun were going down into a ridge of spruce trees on the far shore. As if the sun were moving while I am still. My consciousness is keyed not to my motion but to the apparent motion and deepening tint of the sun. I am not going anywhere. The sun is making change happen; I am a universal constant, ever the same. I am not living in a landscape so much as in time itself. Or if I am navigating at all, I notice myself moving through time, not space. Time is happening. Not as told by my watch but by the real thing—the apparent dive of the sun out of the sky toward the horizon. I sit and watch colors brighten then fade on the edges of clouds. At some point I find myself sitting in darkness, listening to an owl. Stars are out. I rise, stretch, stumble up the bank, and let my feet find their way along the trail back to camp.

Space is told by our movements—even small shifts of our eyes. Time is told by things changing in relation to us when we are not moving. Space-time is told by our moving within a situation that is changing on its own. Without representations of changing scenes in our brains, neither time nor space would exist. Time is calibrated change when we are not responsible for that change; space is calibrated change resulting from our own actions. It’s as simple—and counterintuitive—as that.

Camera in hand, I am flying 500 feet above Taunton Bay on an eelgrass overflight. More accurately, I am being flown by Fred so I can open the passenger-side window and take pictures while he keeps us aloft. The ceiling is 600 feet—we’re flying just under that. Our flightpath follows a map I made before we took off. I drew loops around flats where eelgrass had grown in the past, then drew the shortest routes between loops. Fred follows the map while I lean out the window into the slipstream on the inside of the loop and take frame after frame. I am right where I want to be—where I planned to be when I thought the flight through to get the most coverage of the flats in the shortest amount of time. Airtime costs $250 an hour in a single-engine plane out of Hancock County Airport; I thought I could get the shots I wanted in 35 minutes. Planning the flight, drawing the map, looking down taking pictures—it was all done in my head beforehand, so now I’m just going through well-rehearsed motions. It’s like I am looking down on the workings of my own consciousness inside my own head. I love that feeling—checking myself out to make sure I do the job right in the right place at the right time. Whoopee! I love the feel of riding the wind when it all comes together! The image below is a picture I drew of the state of my brain at a particular instant on June 7, 2008.

aerial flight-6-7-08-72

Whenever we engage the world scene in some way, we have the option of including ourselves in that scene by rising above or expanding our own consciousness so that we can look down and witness ourselves being aware. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Just as I can observe myself moving through winter woods, sitting and watching the sunset, or flying in a plane according to plan, I can be conscious of myself being conscious no matter what I am doing. I am not talking about out-of-body experiences; I am talking about expanding consciousness to include the very act of being conscious. Which may sound strange until you realize we do it all the time.

In football practice we study diagrams of plays on the blackboard, which we internalize, practice, then employ in the big game. We watch ourselves going through the drill until we get it just right. We cast our net of expectancy onto the world, and rely on feedback to tell us what we have caught. We live in such loops every day of our lives, adjusting our behaviors accordingly until we live up to our own expectations. Or better yet, surpass them.

Basketball practice. I’m in line on the left side of the court well behind the keyhole. Now it’s my turn. I get the ball, drive toward the center of the court, take a high stride, arc the ball in my right hand up and over my head while still heading straight across—without looking at the basket—up, up, drop, swish through the net. The whole play works just as planned. The court, the ball, the net, and me all in my head in proper relationship. It’s still there 60 years later. The plan, that is, not my ability to execute it.

Visualization, practice, immediate feedback, more practice, and still more—until we get it right. We can learn to watch ourselves being conscious, see what comes of it, then rework that consciousness until it meets the standards we currently aspire to. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

One problem with consciousness is we pick it up when we are too young to appreciate what it can do for us. And nobody ever tells us we’re in charge of the whole show. We have to keep pushing ourselves as we grow older to transcend the former boundaries of our mental abilities. We are partly conscious while in school, conscious in different ways when working and raising a family, and later in life come into our own because we have time to work on perfecting ourselves in ways we never thought of before.

Which is when many of us are so tired of working we retire early, move to Florida, and spend the rest of our days playing golf. Such folks have maps of the different courses they’ve played in their heads. To improve their game, they do mental workouts, then practice every day until they get their score in a range they can live with. What if they took the same approach and devoted the same energy to understanding and improving their own minds and the world they live in in order to make up for all the mistakes they made getting where they are today? Instead of resting on their laurels, they could help create a world that would be better for them, better for their relationships, and better for this tired old Earth.

If consciousness can send Captain Nemo around the world in 80 days, Einstein on a thought experiment into space packing only his alarm clock, Raquel Welch on a fantastic voyage through blood vessels of the human body, others on a journey to the center of the Earth, my youthful self onto a basketball court or on a walk through snowy woods or into the sky to take pictures, then it should have no difficulty transcending conventional wisdom by placing those who so desire on a platform above themselves from which they can look down upon their own conscious minds—particularly their left-brain interpreters—in action.

That is the easy part. The hard part is adopting the discipline of making accurate, detailed observations from that perspective so the trip is not only an adventure but provides sufficient evidence on which to base a new understanding of the workings of our minds so that we may take responsibility for what we are doing in and to the world. Culture is a huge, collaborative effort from an agreed-upon point of view in the mind. Anthropologists study minds immersed in other cultures. We must become students of our own inner cultures in order to improve our mental processes and the actions they lead us to commit.

If we can visualize female circumcision in which the clitoris and labia minora of 300 million teenage (and younger) girls in Africa are excised every year with a rusty razor blade, we can ask ourselves whether we—male or female—would wish that practice on ourselves, our mates, and our children for any reason whatsoever. From a cultural distance, it is easy to see the pain, misery, and danger such a practice inflicts. The art is in seeing the mentality of male anxiety and presumed dominance within which it makes perfect sense, and then asking whether that mentality is the best we can imagine for ourselves. If it isn’t, we then have the option of handling our sexual anxieties in other, less punishing ways.

Read, watch, or listen to the news. Abuse and cruelty are rampant around the globe—directed at our children, mates, neighbors, bodies, and even the body of the Earth on which we live and absolutely depend. Thinking to get ourselves off the hook, we come up with millions of rationales for such behaviors. Looking down from above, we can see them for the excuses they are, and beyond that, see ourselves protecting the cherished assumptions by which we live. Those assumptions invariably cast blame for our failings on others, who by default become inferior beings deserving of punishment to keep them in line with our wishes.

What the news is really about is the sorry state of our own consciousness as revealed through the thoughtless behavior of those like ourselves. Everybody does it, we say, it’s just human nature. We’re no better than we should be. There in plain sight for all to see is the Big Lie. Discovering it in ourselves gives us the option of seeing behind the lie to what it is in ourselves we are so set on protecting. Not life itself nor our genes but the advantaged way of life we have chosen for ourselves. As if we were members of an elite core of beings far superior to the rabble around us. That conceit is at the heart of the discontent behind every one of our assumptions, attitudes, and acts.

Rising above our minds and looking down, we discover options we never considered when locked in the confines of conventional consciousness. We have more discretion in administering our workaday lives than we commonly think. Do we really want to spend time watching animated cartoons depicting the antics of two-legged mice wearing white gloves—who can talk? Do we really think an appropriate response to 9/11 is to invade a country having no connection with that attack? Because I loathe the very idea of abortions, do I have the right to deny them to women under any and all circumstances? Now that I am old enough to know something of my own mind, is playing golf the best use of my time?

If we reach the point of questioning our true motivation, we are halfway to taking direct responsibility for our actions in the world, for visualizing the situations we are in, and for our personal brand of consciousness itself. Nobody taught us how to do this; nobody can do it in our stead. But from here on the way is clear: the state of the world is our doing; if it is to improve, we are the only ones in a position to make it happen. Which is my definition of a superhero. Either we rise to this inner occasion or we don’t. The rest is the history of our times.

Ω

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

NOAA Weather Radio is some of the best entertainment around. That is if you can stand the robot voices, endless repetitions, senseless scheduling, foolish long-range forecasts, and fallibility of the whole enterprise of trying to figure the weather one day in advance, much less an entire week. Here is exhibit A of trying to predict the future based on trends derived from past and current data—as if that tells the whole story.

 

I keep reminding myself the National Weather Service, like the fallen woman in the song, is more to be pitied than censured. Even so, it drives me crazy. I rely on it as little as possible. Which comes down to times when major storms are in the offing and I want all the information I can get to anticipate how it might impact my plans.

 

Take March 2nd of this year. Big snowstorm coming. I wanted to know if schools would be closed, because that would affect my adult ed class on Minding the Mind, which had already been postponed by a storm the week before. Yep, winter storm warning posted for coastal and interior Waldo County (the dire prospects repeated three times in succession in identical wording at a minute-and-a-half each), coastal and interior Hancock County, and Penobscot Valley. The Bar Harbor town horn sounded its three-blast school-cancellation notice. It was going to snow all day, with some sleet and freezing rain mixed in. I got a call that my class had been cancelled. OK, that was that.

 

Except it wasn’t. A few flakes fell in the morning, adding up to about an inch of new snow. Then it stopped. And stayed stopped. The storm must have veered away from the coast. But schools were closed, kids stayed home, parents had to make childcare arrangements if they wanted to go to work, and life went on despite the false warning.

 

Computers, like brains, can infer trends from past data and present conditions—but they cannot predict the future. They can only make an informed guess, which in this instance we call a forecast, as if computers could somehow see ahead. Which they can’t because, like the rest of us, they’re stuck in the here and now. With no sure way of knowing what they don’t know. Even if they had access to an infinite array of data points telling temperature, humidity, wind strength and direction, they still could not predict conditions at those data points based on anything but assumed probabilities, which opens the way to misjudging the amount of energy in the system one minute from now—and erroneous forecasts for any future point of interest.

 

On the other hand, weather forecasts based on an endless loop such as “Que sera, sera” wouldn’t cut it, either. “As God wills” would translate, we haven’t a clue. Maps provided by weather radar would be a big improvement in showing what’s happening around our area at the moment, leaving prognostications up to us as individuals. Tracking such images over time would provide a sense of how fast clouds are gathering, and the route they are taking across the landscape. Which is pretty much what the weather service does for us now, converting such evidence into a thoroughly annoying verbal report by a machine that has no idea what it is “talking” about, and no feedback loop for self-correction.

 

The brain works much the same way. Except it has a gazillion feedback loops within feedback loops, so it stays abreast of changing situations by updating itself every fraction of a second. Take performing or listening to music (both of which are every bit as complicated as the weather) as an example. In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain says the brain sorts sounds not only by tone, loudness, and duration, but by changes in tone, loudness, and duration. Auditory cortex then tracks the interrelations between sounds as they change both serially and simultaneously, integrating them to produce our subjective experience of music. Relations between simultaneous sounds (harmony) are tracked by auditory cortex in the right brain; relations between serial sounds (rhythm, melody) are tracked in the left brain, which also sequences individual speech sounds into words, phrases, and sentences (Harper Collins edition, pages 53-57).

 

In music consciousness (as in weather consciousness) what is happening now is placed in the context of what has come before. Music, that is, depends on working memory to keep the flux of individual notes “in mind” for several seconds to get the drift while, at the same time, attending to relationships between notes sounded simultaneously, integrating both dimensions to produce the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that, in combination over space and time, produce the music we are attending to at the moment (Jourdain, p. 57).

 

In music, predictions of what is to come arise from the ongoing flow of sound itself, or, if we are familiar with the piece, from our sense of having heard it before so we anticipate the directions and characteristics of what lies ahead. Listening to music has a decided advantage over forecasting the weather because we can never experience the same weather twice—storms may be similar, but never exactly the same. Modern recording technology allows us to experience identical repetitions of the same piece, or somewhat similar renditions by other performers—or by the same performer at other stages of her career.

 

In weather as in music, expectancy is the key to predicting the future. Our sense of what is to come stems from probabilities established through repetition of more-or-less similar events in the past, creating a range (envelope) of what we might expect this time around. Such expectancies exert a powerful hold on us, creating a kind of tension between memory and current sensory perception that leads us to pay close attention to how events develop and play themselves out in consciousness.

 

Here are a few examples of conscious expectancy at work. The last time I came this way that dog chased and tried to bite me; there it is again. Some years ago, my partner tripped on an innocent-looking rock on a trail in Acadia; every time she hikes the same trail she watches for that rock. Looking for eagles, I scan areas where I have seen them before. Having developed a recipe for gluten-free bread, I can now make it without even thinking about what I am doing, or convert it into pancakes, waffles, or cake topped with yogurt and maple syrup. In the current recession, President Obama looks to the example of what FDR did in the Great Depression of the 1930s for guidance on what to do in 2009.

 

The dynamic relationship between past and current events enables us to invent the future even though we’ve never been there before. Which works fine as long as circumstances haven’t changed all that much much. But one thing for sure, situations cannot ever be identical in different locations or two times in a row. A concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra outdoors at Tanglewood in summer with the humidity at 87% will differ significantly from the same program performed in Symphony Hall in winter with 26% humidity. Or perhaps the concert master is coming down with the flu. Novelty inevitably rears its head, so expectancy can never be borne out in exact detail.

 

So, sometimes schools are closed needlessly because storms do not materialize as predicted. Kids get a day off, and parents simply have to make ad hoc arrangements. Pity the poor weather service that called it wrong once again. But, too, in the next concert you go to the musicians may finally get it all together and pull off the greatest musical event of your life. Regardless of our expectations, consciousness is always an adventure. If we always knew what was going to happen beforehand, where’s the challenge or the fun in that?

 

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