Reflection 166: In the Loop

December 21, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

To extract ourselves from, say, the economic way of being on Earth, the military or consumptive way, we need to break free from the looping engagements that hold us where we find ourselves, and then enter into engagements based on wholly new loops of attachment. The loops I speak of are artifacts of how consciousness reaches out through expectancy and action, and takes in feedback from the world through the senses. That’s where we live, in that loop. The point of personal consciousness is to engage the world in an effectively adaptive manner, and to monitor the progress of that engagement by opening the senses to the world’s response. But consciousness itself is changed through any such consistent patterns of engagement. Once we learn the lingo, the customs, the routines, the tools, we become creatures of the worlds we inhabit.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, bring their wars home with them, where those wars leap from their dreams, a wailing siren, or the sound of a kid’s stick clacking against a picket fence. Once a continuous loop is established, a way of being in the world, it is hard to extinguish. Forsaken lovers suffer longings well after the possibility of fulfillment is shut away. A great many poems and songs flow from that psychic wound. To be between engagement means trying to transform old ways of reaching out to the world into new ones. Sorrow, regret, fear, and sometimes anger stem from knowing things will never be the same.

Consciousness is participatory. It involves giving oneself to the world, and opening to what the world offers in response. Or the world might initiate the process, with consciousness rising to the occasion by sending a tentative gesture of acknowl-edgement. Once opening moves have established the flow, it can run either way. Creatures of habit, we expect more of the same. And if biological values are released, we actively crave more and more. Once our appetites for sex, food, drink, comfort, protection, companionship, and excitement are aroused, the loop becomes part of our history as recorded in neuronal patterns in our brains. Looping engagements with the world are the stuff of memory, and memory is the stuff of both consciousness and the altered synapses which make it possible.

In restoring our sense of connectedness to the natural world that supports us, it is up to us to send Earth a message saying we are willing to negotiate. Having evolved while we were rising up on two legs and working out our relationship with the savannahs of Africa, our brains are predisposed to the idea. Which is reinforced by the aesthetic sense of beauty, rightness, or approval we feel in places we find scenic and appealing. We recognize a productive habitat when we see one because that judgment is stamped into the primal being that makes us human. Aesthetics are a modern code for what satisfies the biological yearning to realize our most fundamental values. Without that yearning, we would not have survived as long as we have. And having lost sight of its biological underpinnings—thinking it cultural merely—we forget that our future survival depends on finding ways to excite that same sense.

Bird and wildlife watching strike me as variations on the ancient art of stalking game. It’s still in us; we just put it to new uses by establishing novel loops to fulfill it. On the island I mentioned in my last post, I paid particular attention to wildlife in winter. Every day I would snowshoe out looking for black-backed and pileated woodpeckers, red squirrels, mink, otters, white-tailed deer, harbor seals (there was one in the bay), eagles—even dead gulls, geese, ducks, and jellyfish. It is no accident this exercise was so important to me. In earlier times, my life would have depended on it. I was particularly fascinated by the many different kinds of ducks on the bay. I worked out strategies for getting as near them as I could. My justification was taking photographs, where once it would have been hunting in order to eat. Greater scaup, goldeneye, bufflehead, red-breasted merganser, eider, black duck, surf scoter—I loved them all. I got close enough to one Canada goose to read the numbered band on its neck, which I relayed to Maine Fish and Wildlife. I later received word that that particular goose was shot near Lake Ontario in western New York State.

I took thousands of slides during the two-and-a-half years of my stay, collecting them into slideshows, which I presented everywhere I could from suburban Boston to Calais, Maine. When I was paid an honorarium, I went to the grocery and converted it to food. Such fulfillment is more elaborate now than it once was, but it satisfies exactly the same urge. When I worked for the National Park Service, I tapped into the same primal dynamic, using a computer instead of a spear. Over the years, my fascination with various forms of wildlife has morphed into a concern for the ecosystems that feed and shelter them. That particular dynamic organizes the food web, so I systematically identify the primary producers in any habitat—plants and algae that convert sunlight into carbohydrates—then find out what vegetarian species are in the neighborhood, what carnivores, up to top predators such as owls, hawks, sea mammals, and mink, all the way to the arch-predator, namely We the People.

No, in a couple million years, the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree. We still hunt as of old, just in new looping patterns of engagement with our surroundings; now it’s called shopping. Even our cultural interests and drives haven’t changed all that much. Our values are still much the same, only now we buy jogging strollers and plastic toys instead of chipping arrowheads and scrapers by hand out of rocks. One thing for sure, modern consciousness is no more advanced than it was when ice-age hunters painted bison on the walls of caves in what we now call southern France. We can still activate the same old loops, and reactivate those we have neglected once we moved from the plains to the village, and on to the city.

If our cultural ways are decimating our home planet—as they surely are—we can do something about it. Where formerly we would have started walking to find new territories, now we know there’s no place to go where we can avoid trashing our environment by exercising all those bad habits we have only recently picked up—say, within the past three hundred years. The conspicuous alternatives are to reduce our population, or change our ways of consuming and polluting our place on this Earth.

It’s that simple—and that hard. For starters, we need to include planet Earth in our loop of engagement with our surroundings. The culture we think of as supporting us is maladaptive in being a mere illusion. Even dressed in modern clothes and housed in gated communities, we are still cave-dwellers at heart and in mind. Our priority values still center on sex, food, drink, safety, comfort, companionship, and excitement. That is, we haven’t lost the biological edge we developed in Africa. Or, more accurately, Africa developed in us. If we look for a modern-day version of that primal savannah, we will find it not far away. That special place will feature no automobiles, no mega-corporations, no coal-fired power plants, no bulldozing of mountaintops, no supermarket shelves crammed with prepackaged foods, and so on. No, it will offer a natural, back-to-basics kind of life. At least more so than the lifestyles we trap ourselves in today. As Michael Renner, writing in the current World Watch, describes the effects of those lifestyles on the Earth in terms of the so-called natural disasters they inflict:

The number of natural disasters (excluding geological events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) has risen from 233 per decade in the 1950s to more than 3,800 in the decade 2000-2009. Though there are considerable variations year-to-year, the number of people affected by such disasters has grown from less than 20 million to 2 billion during the same time frame.

The pace is likely to accelerate as climate change translates into more intense storms, flooding, and heat waves. In addition to sudden disasters, there is also the “slow-onset” degradation of ecosystems through drought and desertification processes, which in some cases is sufficiently extreme to compromise habitability (“Climate of Risk,” pages 19-20).

Two billion people is almost a third of the current human population, not to mention the other species affected by our collective carelessness and extravagance. That is one indicator of the price someone is paying so we can be privileged to turn our backs on our native habitat by hiding out in the confines of our culture and economy. It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, it cannot stay that way. The good news is that we are just as well equipped to live the old way as the new. We are much the same people, with the same consciousness and looping connection to wherever we live. Knowing what we know now, the challenge is to figure out how to dial back to, say, 1932. Height of a depression then, height of a depression now—only with five billion fewer people on Earth. That’s the span of my lifetime; I liked it much better then, with cornfields across the street, a few cattle back of the barn, and neighbors who spoke with one another when they met on the street. It shouldn’t be that hard to rebuild a decent world to that scale.

And if we don’t change our habits, they will be ruthlessly changed for us as we are overtaken and overcome by events. There’s no doubt in my mind the human population will be cut drastically one way or another. I am not voicing doom here, I am talking common sense. If we have any imagination at all, we already know how this is going to turn out. Take a look at the folks overcome by fumes and pumice in Pompeii. Those are our writhing bodies. Except it will be like a slow-motion movie with us. The effect will be much the same.

If consciousness is not up to planning ahead in an emergency, then I’d say it’s doesn’t set an example for others to emulate. Maybe that’s how the end will go. Good riddance, then. We never found the owner’s manual, so didn’t really understand what we were doing all along. The fact is, the modern way doesn’t work, and we haven’t hit on a better one. We’re between engagements, neither here nor there, so suffer from a profound sense of loss with no new prospects in sight. Pitiful, really, to have so much potential, yet be too dense to learn to apply our own gifts. This is the stuff of sad songs.

Quagmire

 

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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)

We live two projects at the same time, inner consciousness and outer deeds. We tend to focus on the deeds because others, in their own way, are aware of them—as if their awareness were more significant than our own. But all the while our external projects are rooted in and enabled by  hidden projects in personal consciousness—which no one in the world has access to besides ourselves. Strange business, this living two lives at the same time, one outer, one inner. What is the connection between these polar aspects of existence?

My current project is to go shopping at the grocery store for bananas, gallon of milk, yogurt, celery, broccoli, toilet paper. I’ve had breakfast, done my laundry, made the bed. One final errand before getting down to work on my next post. Put on cap, get shopping bag, out the door. Walking up the drive, I decide to turn left on Kebo street, not right toward the store. A stretch of the legs will do me good. I start up the hill at a good clip and take some deep breaths. Beautiful morning for a change after six weeks of rain. Passing the ugly house, I ask myself why I always have the same reaction; it’s only a house. Yes, but built to achieve a certain effect—to make a statement, not to live in. I avert my eyes and keep striding. Just short of the top, off the road to the left among the trees—a six-point buck. Standing there, looking at me with total attention, taking me in. I see myself through its quiet eyes: a loping biped on some sort of mission. Struck by its poise and lack of fear, I imagine it assessing the situation in which I am playing a role simply by walking by—and me assessing the same engagement from the opposite side. I find myself moved and somehow reassured by the sight of this evidently confident, curious, open, and most beautiful young animal. I make reassuring noises in the guise of words; the deer stands there calmly, intent the whole time. I keep moving downhill past the ugly house and on to the store.

On Holland Avenue I have a second encounter. I watch an elderly man ahead of me let himself down very slowly to sit on a stone wall in the shade of a large maple tree. I can tell he’s heading for the grocery as well, but the trip is harder for him than for me. I’ve known him as a presence for years, always dressed in brown, wearing the same cap, shuffling along—but not his name. He’s deaf, so I greet him with a wave, and he waves back. Then he tells me he’s an ex-cop from western Massachusetts who came to Bar Harbor to escape the crime he worked with every day. He tells me the name of the town he came from, where the crime families are ruthless, with no value for human life. I make more reassuring noises, but he rolls on and on. As I turn toward the store at last he says, “Have a good one.” “You too,” I say.

Sitting at my computer now, I feel good about both encounters, meaning my deeds and awareness were on the same wave-length in both cases. I am who I am; the world is what it is. So far today, there’s been no disparity between the two poles. The buck didn’t lift its tail and leap into the bush, the old cop rested his bones on the way to the store. I got my errands done and made a start on this post. I made myself happen in several unanticipated situations, while other beings made themselves happen their own ways. We all did OK. The buck didn’t get spooked, the old guy made it to the store (I met him pushing his cart as I was coming out, my bag full of stuff), and I freed my mind of nagging chores.

So life unfolds in a kind of looping engagement between the two worlds, gestures sent outward, feedback coming in, leading to further gestures and more feedback. Always striving for balance between deeds and awareness—as told by that elusive sense of coherence and integrity that announces we’re on the right track (or sense of disunity that warns we’re on the wrong track). Somewhere in the brain is a site where outgoing and incoming signals are compared and both awareness and action are adjusted accordingly. In The Mindful Brain (MIT Press, 1982), Gerald M. Edelman says that a theory of the neural processes underlying consciousness “must stress the main dynamic function of the brain in mediating between experience and action” (page 74f., italics added). That is where consciousness lives, there in the mediating space between awareness and deeds, which is precisely where incoming and outgoing signals must come together for the sake of comparison. Coherence (or disjunction) between deeds and awareness is achieved at that site in the company of signals relaying feelings about the comparison and motivation for subsequent action.

As a first stab at a definition, a project, then, is the living history of mental mediation between deeds and awareness in a given sequence of efforts to coordinate them in achieving coherence and integrity over a span of related events. In the case of my walk to the grocery store, I engaged in several novel situations, but they fit (because I made them fit) with the overall scheme and did not lead me astray. Indeed, they enriched the particular project of buying groceries. By tying them together and underscoring their relatedness, I achieved a degree of harmony between potentially divergent aspects of consciousness. I made myself happen in a manner intended to achieve coherence rather than chaos. Thereby revealing the kind of person I am.

On another day I might have done it differently, depending on my mental state at the time. Today, preparing to write about projects in consciousness, I choose to seek out the essence of relatedness between overt behavior and sensory awareness. I can imagine a man who, taking the same walk, forgot the grocery store and shot the deer—even in town and out of season. But I am not that sort of man. I am more the sort who likes to get errands behind him in order to free his mind to write a post about a particular aspect of consciousness. In that, I am probably a rare sort of man because I can’t imagine many others setting themselves up to write about projects in consciousness. So here I am, engaged in a writing project (a series of overt acts) dealing with projects themselves as organized units of mental activity. That feels right because that’s pretty much who I seem to be these days. To wit, the perpetrator of this blog.

In earlier days I have been involved in a great many other projects, all sustained and coordinated efforts to achieve harmony between my actions in the world and my consciousness backstage. In each, I made myself happen in ways other than I do now. Somewhat similar on the surface, perhaps, but markedly different. Writing (and illustrating) a book, for instance, is a project dependent on sustaining attention from one day to the next, start to finish. My dissertation in 1982, Metaphor to Mythology: Experience as a Resonant Synthesis of Meaning and Being, was my first such major undertaking. That term “resonant synthesis” refers to the same harmony between meaningful awareness and acting in the world that I am dealing with today, but couched in an academic setting. My thought process then was guided by references to works in a variety of fields such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and brain science. As anyone who has produced one knows, a dissertation is a special kind of project governed by all sorts of rules suited to academic disciplines. At Boston University I had a committee to oversee what I was thinking and doing. Even so, the 647-page end product was largely an original work in making connections between so many disciplines (from metaphor at one extreme to mythology at the other).

My son Michael, having lived in Italy for a number of years, returned to the Boston area while I was in grad school. We had drifted into different worlds, so got together only occasionally over a period of five years. His suicide in 1981 got my attention, pretty much exploding it—as my departing his childhood world must have exploded his attention many years before. My project switched to dealing with the regret, grief, and guilt that flooded my mind every hour every day. For almost a year, incapable of sustained thought, I dwelled on what had gone wrong in Michael’s young life. For three months after he killed himself, I spent all day working on meaningless picture puzzles, the harder the better. Gradually my body and mind began to synchronize again, but always dominated by a profound sense of loss which colored everything I did. That loss is with me today, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes filling my mind. It has become part of every project I take on. I’m doing this partly for Michael, I tell myself, because he can’t finish the project he started so long ago.

Five years later, I moved to Maine to write my great environmental book, which was to be a phenomenological treatment of the looming environmental crisis humans were mindlessly inflicting on the Earth (the book got written, but was so angry it never got published). Maybe I was the catastrophe, but either way, I saw the Earth as under siege. I became aware of a 54-lot subdivision that threatened an eagle nest near where I lived, so fought it and—with a lot of help from people throughout Maine—won my case in court. From then on, my project was to save the Earth. In the mid-1980s, the Patten Corporation was buying up land throughout the state, offering finders fees to folks who turned them on to land that could be bought cheap, subdivided, and sold at high prices. I was a founding member of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the local land trust; the River Union, a watershed protection coalition; and Friends of Taunton Bay, a bay protection group, in which I am still active. Fish landings (except for lobsters) have taken a nosedive since I’ve come to Maine, so I’ve spent a lot of time on fishery issues such as habitat degradation, pollution, overharvesting, and shoreline development. My projects keep getting bigger as I bring myself up to speed on such concerns.

In 1993, I went to work as a seasonal employee at Acadia National Park, and my personal project was to write a book about the ecological functioning of the park that is so easy for untrained eyes to overlook. I wrote up 60 hikes I took on trails in Acadia (a hike a week for over a year), grouping them by seasons to emphasize the changing nature of the terrain—what I called the living landscape of Acadia. It took me five years to get it all done, illustrated, and edited by Jane Crosen. My subtext was about watersheds and the flow of moisture through what I saw as one of natures most fundamental units of biological organization in receiving, storing, and distributing water through the landscape. Ecosystems are another such unit, as are the seasons of the year. ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park came out in 1968. Having written up 60 different hikes, I then wrote up my experience of hiking one trail over 150 times, and brought out The Shore Path, Bar Harbor Maine, in 2000. Then in quick succession came Acadia’s Native Wildflowers, Fruits, and Wildlife in 2001, and Acadia’s Trails and Terrain in 2002. The last three are basically picture books, much reduced in size compared to the first one. Those projects pretty much got the writing bug out of my system, making me ready for more direct action.

I next turned to Taunton Bay, doing horseshoe crab research for two years—determining that the crabs never left the bay in winter as they would in warmer climes, but dug into bottom mud and basically hibernated for six months of the year. (I’ll do a post soon on learning to think like a horseshoe crab.) In 2004, Friends of Taunton Bay got a grant from the state to conduct a pilot project in bay management in 2005-2006. That comprised a series of nested projects on governance, maps, indicators, outreach, and fisheries economics. I’ve never been more focused in my life than in overseeing the indicators (of ecosystem health and wellbeing) and mapping sections of that project—and writing the final project reports.

The upshot of that project was . . . yes, another project, this time in mudflat management. Then, in response to all that had recently been learned about the functioning of Taunton Bay, the state created the Taunton Bay Advisory Group to make suggestions on managing local fisheries to the Commissioner of Marine Resources, the first such local fisheries management group in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

I have been heavily involved in all these efforts, putting my consciousness where my body is, where I believe I can be most effective because I know firsthand what I am talking about. I have reinvented myself many times over, yet my core consciousness has stayed ever the same, always seeking harmony between my personal experience and what I do by acting in the world, getting feedback, refining my approach, and trying again. My goal—for indeed my survival depends upon achieving it—is to find coherence between my inner awareness and outer activities, so that—like the deer I saw earlier this morning—I can stand poised and confident in my mind and my surroundings at the same time, turning my life’s energies to constructive use. I may not have saved the Earth as yet, but I feel I am doing my part to improve the local environmental situation as best I can. I’ll keep at it as long as  my wits stay with me, and my consciousness is able to coordinate my deeds with the full range of my sensory awareness in achieving the goals I set myself in one project after another.

Eagle-72

(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)

 

In my view, we are conscious within situations and act within situations, so to change the world, we must create new situations inviting us to further the changes we want to achieve. Situations are domains in which consciousness and action are joined in an ongoing loop of feedforward and feedback. All action is tentative because we aren’t sure of the results until we experience them. We operate through successive approximations guided by feedback, approaching our goal through jumps and starts, then evaluating the results, modifying our aim, and trying again. In the end, we may achieve our goal—or not. But if we don’t make the effort, and pay close attention, we are sure to stay stuck where we are.

 

When nineteen Islamic terrorists brought down the Twin Towers with a death toll of almost three thousand, they created a situation in which the U.S. government felt the need to make a fast, bold, decisive response. The people responded variously, some wanting to learn more about Islam and the Middle East, others turning their hurt and anger into a rage for revenge. The military sent high altitude bombers against targets in Afghanistan, then set about invading Iraq. Eight years later, both wars are still going on, the missions of the two campaigns—after many revisions—still unachieved.

 

When Jews sought a homeland in Palestine in 1947-1949, they sought to gather themselves from around the world after being dispossessed for almost two thousand years, into a state of their own where they could recover their spirit and identity after the horrors of World War II—the most recent insult to their personhood. The situation of the Diaspora led to situations of ghettoization led to a situation of scapegoating and the Holocaust led to a feeling of “never again” led to a situation of banding together for protection led to invasion and reoccupation of the former homeland, and resulting war and Palestinian exodus. The hope for peaceful coexistence, prosperity, and security is yet unachieved, creating a situation in which the energies of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples are being drained day-by-day through mutual antagonism.

 

The Germans created a situation of global instability and insecurity by invading Poland in 1939. The Japanese compounded the situation by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. First the French, then the Americans failed to recognize the failure of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia, misreading the disintegrating situation in Vietnam in terms of the perceived spread of Communism, distorting the situation by creating yet another tragic, unwinnable war.

 

As I have written (Reflection 88: To-Do Lists, posted April 10, 2009), consolidating a variety of tasks into a single list creates a situation within which tasks can be prioritized and dealt with more easily than when treated separately. Credit card companies use a similar strategy in inviting you to consolidate your various debts with them so you’ll have only one payment to make, even if it goes on forever at a high rate of interest.

 

Getting married creates a wholly new situation by legally joining two separate lives—and bank accounts, the true complexity of the situation often underappreciated until the parties decide to separate and go their own ways.

 

Humor flows from situations that generate expectations fulfilled in unsuspected ways. Take Fred and Myrtle, for example. Married for some 65 years, they’d become fixtures on the Maine coast. Fred was a fisherman, first going out for cod and haddock in the groundfishery, then when that failed in 1993, going out for lobster. Fred knew everybody, and everybody felt they’d known Fred forever. Myrtle, meantime, picked crabmeat from crabs Fred brought home, baked her famous strawberry-rhubarb and raspberry-blueberry pies, donuts, whoopie-pies, and hung clothes on the line to dry in the breeze from offshore. But one day in his late eighties, Fred went to his reward. The editor of the local newspaper got wind of it and called Myrtle to ask her to provide an obituary. “No need for that,” said Myrtle, “everybody knows Fred. I couldn’t add a thing they don’t know.” The editor pressed her, saying he couldn’t let Fred’s passing go unnoticed. Myrtle said she’d give it a try. She sat in the kitchen and thought about it, but nothing came. Fred was a fixture, there was nothing more to be said. She sent the editor what she came up with. He called her and told her Fred deserved more than the two words she’d sent in: “Fred died,” was just too short for a man of his years. Couldn’t she stretch it out with more personal details? Myrtle said she’d try. She sat some more over two cups of coffee, then sent in her expanded obituary: “Fred died; boat for sale.”

 

Situations play our expectations against our experience in an enduring exchange that builds over time. We are gripped by the process, contributing our bit, waiting to find out what happens. The playoffs and World Series create situations of national sporting interest. Think Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, and all the other contests we give ourselves to so we can get through the year. We devote our lives to supporting our favored teams, doing all we can to make sure that they win. The spring madness of statewide high school basketball playoffs creates situations tapping into the same energy stream.

 

I remember when clove gum was introduced in the 1940s. I was walking across the street in Hamilton, New York, and met a young blonde in a flouncy, clove-colored skirt who handed me a stick of gum as she smiled and passed by. Free gum! Such a thing had never happened to me. Manufacturers know the personal touch is a good way to get word of a new product spread around, so they hold focus groups to test the waters. I have often thought of what that woman’s day was like, spreading the word about clove gum through small towns in upstate New York, creating a firestorm in the hearts of young boys.

 

If consciousness embedded in old situations has gotten us into the mess we are in today, then what kind of situations might set us on a new course? What sort of situation would alter my personal consciousness so that I would act in my own small sphere to heal the many things we’ve been doing wrong all this time?

 

Survey the situation as it is, list pros and cons, prioritize, visualize an improved situation, then act accordingly. Groups are going through this process all over the world. Women in Nigeria protest oil exploitation by banging pots and pans in the streets. Women in Liberia go on strike and sit by the roadside for the sake of peace. Groups are urging the development of and switch to alternative sources of energy. I went to a four-hour Pachamama Alliance symposium—Awakening The Dreamer, Changing The Dream—this past Sunday, and signed the pledge: “I am committed to bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet as the guiding principle of our times.” Videos presented concrete images of the status quo, activists told of their strategies and accomplishments, we locals discussed how we could direct our energies toward shaping our culture by finding better ways of eating, consuming, traveling, and generally being on the Earth.

 

Traveling alone, the burden seems huge. Traveling together, we can all share the load. Combining our separate experience, consciousness, and effort, we begin to picture a new world. There is no substitute for becoming the change we seek. Others will follow our example. If nobody goes first, everybody is stuck in last place—where we don’t want to be.

 

The main thing is to join others in working together toward similar goals. Think of the new situation as a nest with new life streaming out in every direction from that energy source in our local territory. Taking in radiant energy from the sun, we can put it to more effective use in everyday life than our forebears have been able to do. The new situation is called “the future.” That’s where we’re headed. With pot bangers linked to street sitters linked to seminar goers linked to activists of every stripe in every locale linked to me linked to you, all creating a new situation that is really a new world.

 

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Reflection 70: Joanna Macy

February 27, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I have never met Joanna Macy yet she is a landmark in my conscious life. Her book, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (State University of New York Press, 1991), expands the linear notion of cause and effect to the three-dimensional realm of mutual interaction and causality. Macy sets out to track the influence of feedback in goings-on in the world. Yes, everything is connected, not rigidly, but through interactive processes that create the dynamic universe we live in. That universe—and our consciousness of it—does not simply unroll in a straight line, but keeps recreating itself through an infinite series of stages never twice the same.

 

It’s true, you can’t go home again because home will have changed since you left it. Home is a state of consciousness locked in memory but no longer in existence. With the upshot that, if home isn’t the same, you aren’t the same. Everything changes, that is the law of consciousness. The mutual interplay of simultaneously changing elements within a system is what Joanna Macy deals with in her book.

 

This work has tremendous implications for consciousness because when the observer looks at her world, the world looks back at her, both aware all the time of their mutual engagement. What you perceive is partly the result of your own process of seeing and partly due to the simultaneous influence of the world seeing you. You know what it is to catch someone’s eye eying your eye. There’s always more going on than meets one eye in isolation. We are never isolated; we are always engaged with that portion of a world making up our current situation. We and that situation are mutually engaged, even if we may not be aware of our personal contribution.

 

I devote this post to Joanna Macy’s ideas expressed in her own words. All quotes are from Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.

 

Reality

z The illusion that knower is separate from . . . the world she would know . . . drives her into error and derails her pursuit of truth. (Page 130.)

 

Self/I/Ego

z Everything subsists in relationship and knows no independent self-existence. (Page 110.)

 

z In the web of relationships which form what we call the self there are no clear lines of demarcation whereby it can be asserted “This is I.” (Page 110.)

 

z To be a person . . . is to participate, at every level of our being, in a reality wider than that enclosed by our skin or identified with our name. (Page 184.)

 

z As a social and linguistic convention, the notion of an “I” is useful, but, if taken to represent a fixed or separate entity, it is a fiction. (Page 184.)

 

z What is to be overcome, or rather “seen through,” is not this stream of events, this fountain of thoughts and feelings, but the construct of “I” we impose upon it and the assumption that it is separate from other beings. (Page 216.)

 

Reflection/Meditation

z The Buddha [did not] “pour” precepts into his followers’ heads so much as invite them to free themselves of habitual ways of seeing. (Page 127.)

 

z The mental distortions which obscure to us the nature of our being in the world [can be] viewed in a merciless light. . . .

     This is done by directing attention not to the things we see but to how we see them, the dependently co-arising nature of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. (Page 136.)

 

z Skillful meditation, that journey into the wilderness where we confront our own tricks and delusions, can empower social action, freeing us to respond in simplicity and immediacy to our fellow beings. (Page 217.)

 

z The grip of ego is weakened not only in meditation, but also in acting on behalf of others. The risk-taking and courage which moral action often requires can catapult us beyond . . . individual self-interest. We are shot into a larger space where the old boundaries of self dissolve. (Page 217.)

 

Relationships

z The persistent labors of many on behalf of the public weal, as well as the simpler, more mundane acts whereby pleasure is found in giving pleasure, testify to a widespread intuition that we are, by nature, part of each other. (Page 188.)

 

Transformation

z What do we do with this clamoring ego, this posturing “I” that distorts our perceptions . . . ? Religious faiths offer means of transcending it by setting it into larger perspectives, The common element is the transformation that occurs as consciousness encounters and opens to wider dimensions of reality. (Page 215.)

 

z Like roots, trunk, and branches, we beings are interconnected and part of each other. Our griefs and hopes are not separate, nor can our fulfillments be private, for we are as organically linked as a tree. To act with this knowledge, and shape our lives and institutions to reflect it, requires transformations that threaten our comfort and security. It requires a dying to old ways. This is easier to accept and face when we realize that, like a flame, we are ever dying and renewing, for that is the nature of things. (Page 219.)

 

Values

z Value is intrinsic to each act because action . . . represents, in the last analysis, what we are and what we become. (Page 110.)

 

z Ethical norms . . . are grounded in the very relativity that, in the mutual causal view, conditions all existence. These norms and values reveal that the liberation of the individual and the health of her society are inseparable. Indeed, they point to a profound mutuality between personal and social transformations. (Page 212.)

 

z Moral values are not acquired by intellectual assent alone, as many religious teachers have affirmed, but involve a reorganization of personality. By the same token, they do not transform society unless they transform the doer himself. (Page 215.)

 

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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 © 2009)

 

My basic premise in writing this blog is that most people assume their consciousness gives them immediate access to the real world. Or put differently, that the world really is as their senses depict it. My aim in this series of posts is to test that hypothesis by examining a variety of episodes drawn from my own consciousness to see if they are consistent with such an assumption or not.

 

My findings up till now are that my personal consciousness is not a one-to-one replica of any world other than the one in my head, which is demonstrably one of a kind. As for the real world, I have no way of recognizing it by sight, sound, touch, scent, taste, or any combination of senses. It is always my world, that fragment of a world my consciousness presents to me at the time. Does that make it real? To me, perhaps, but not to anyone else. And even I have to test it by acting in that world to see how it accords with my expectations. Sometimes it might, but usually not.

 

What is real is that I have to ease into my world through a series of rough approximations of how I think it might be configured. My world is my current situation as I construe it. I make a move, and the feedback I get tells me whether or not I might be on the right track. Slowly refining my consciousness through a series of such tests, I arrive at an operational view of my situation that meets my standards of proof. For practical purposes, that serves as my current reality.

 

Beyond that, if others replicate my tests and come to similar conclusions, that adds some weight to my convictions. If those whose judgments I respect—my peers—tend toward consensus on the matter, that adds even more weight. But there are always rough edges that are inconclusive or surprising, so we have to investigate them before we can reach full consensus.

 

And so it goes. Reality is a moving target, a goal we can aim at but never attain because by the time we reach it, it has moved on beyond us. What is our situation now? we ask, as we run through the whole process one more time. 

 

What is our situation now? That is always the main challenge to consciousness. Unless we develop a feel for what’s currently happening, we can’t act appropriately—and survival depends on our fitness to our actual situation. Yesterday, it was this; what is it today? Think of how we try to assess our situation when we meet someone we know:

 

How are you? How’s it going? How’s business? How you doin? What’s going on? What’s happening? What’s up? What’s new? What’s the score? Who’s winning?

 

We ask newspapers, magazines, Web sites, blogs, and hundreds of TV channels to fill us in on the latest bulletins about the lay of the land. About the situations we are in, the ones our fate depends on. Which are invariably complex and fast-changing. So we need more and more details about what’s happening. Locally, regionally, nationally, globally, we want to know so we can anticipate what’s coming and act accordingly. This is not an intellectual exercise to stave off Alzheimer’s. This is a matter of life and death. My life and death. Of updating my personal consciousness so I can act appropriately regarding my current placement in the world I take to be real.

 

Gang wars, wandering bears, serial killers, terrorists, uprisings, bombings, stock prices, epidemics, tsunamis, hurricanes—I want to know how these and other events might affect my personal welfare. I depend on consciousness to keep me informed. To tell me what’s happening, who’s winning, how business is going.

 

Friends are people we trust with the details of our personal situation; strangers and enemies are people we fear might misuse those details, so we reply with socially-acceptable conventions when they ask what’s going on. We practice sizing up situations by playing games or watching sporting events—rule-governed situations where we are familiar with the territory, know the score, and recognize all the players. Being on the winning side tells us we must be doing something right.

 

Trouble is, events in the real world don’t always follow rules. We track cyclones and hurricanes so we can predict where they’re headed, and listen to Earth rumblings to tell us where the next earthquake or volcanic eruption will be. But terrorist attacks, wandering bears, and stock prices, for instance, defy rule-governed predictions.

 

If the cultural world were a walled-off precinct within the natural world, it might be easier to understand in terms of natural law. But consciousness often confounds nature and culture, so it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, the admixture defying accurate description, much less prediction. Even the so-called hard sciences are disciplines within consciousness, so they are never as pure or reliable as their practitioners claim. Just wait a week and you’ll see. A given situation is usually more complicated than it seems at first glance, reality more elusive and harder to pin down than we think it should be.

 

Gauging reality is essentially a matter of soul searching. Of probing consciousness for clues to where we are and what is going on. It is more a matter of raising doubts and asking questions than mindless belief, which terminates exploration before it can get started. The real nature of the current situation is always a matter of conjecture, informed opinion, and judgment. All of which bear on the degree of conviction with which we feel we can rely on consciousness to tell the straight story.

 

The pursuit of reality begins with uncertainty, not surety. You’ve got to catch yourself being conscious of yourself being conscious, then ask why things appear as they do. To know reality, first you must know thyself. Which can only follow from a course of self-doubt (for starters, never take your senses or emotions at face value), followed by self-exploration, and endless self-reflection. Keep in mind that reality, should you come across it, is likely to be rigged (by yourself or someone you love or admire).

 

The first question to ask is: How do I know that I know what I think I know? If you get beyond that one, your judgment of conscious reality will improve remarkably. But in a world of hype, spin, illusions, lobbying, bribes, favors, payments, donations, traditions, strong opinions, public relations, and outright deceit, that is likely to be only the beginning of a life devoted to inquiry and the pursuit of reality.

 

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