399. Total Immersion

January 7, 2015

To insist on adherence to the rules of logic and reason at all times leads us astray. At the core, we are neither logical nor reasonable. We are what we are, doing the best we can to put pieces of the mind puzzle together however they might fit. If we don’t give ourselves to solving that puzzle by its own dictates, we’ll never impose a solution that fits from outside. Too much of our most intimate mental makeup marches to a series of different drummers, with beats that change and never settle down into a regular rhythm. Imposing a certain order on what we allow ourselves to think encases the mind in cement.

But the mind is not a rigid thing. It is a fluid organ that shapes itself to the demands of the moment. That is the genius by which we have survived all these millennia, not by being “right” and “proper,” but by adapting to the situation we are in. By detecting the structure of unique moments of history from inside our personal experience of those moments, not by imposing a predetermined structure from without.

As with our thinking, so in our acting do we need to prepare ourselves over the years by practicing the moves that are important to us. The best method is total immersion in what we want to do, trying it over and over again. Nothing worth doing comes easily. Practice is the secret of success. Not good looks. Not youth. Not luck. Not money. Not connections.

Practice.

We often give credit to talent and gifts, but the secret of talent and gifts is disciplined hard work. Think of Fred Astaire rehearsing fourteen hours a day to appear effortlessly graceful. We have to train our bodies, arms, hands, and fingers to do what we want. Mind over matter. Which is the true challenge we face. Make that mind over muscle—and tendon and joint and bone. Our minds and bodies are made to do the work, and to sharpen our performance through years of dedicated practice.

It helps if we break our task into stages that build one on another. Which is the nature of projects. We can’t tackle every challenge all at once. The recipe for successful action is to break it into sessions for working on one thing at a time. When we get good at one subroutine (in Tai Chi, say), we move to the next, rehearsing earlier ones as we go, adding new moves every day until we become masters of the whole. Then we move on to the next scene, paragraph, chapter, or movement of whatever we are engaged in building or perfecting.

Projects are a means of achieving concentration on one part of a complicated process after another, and concentration is of the essence in directing our full mental attention on both perception and action at the same time, that is to say, on our engagement with a particular activity.

Projects are behavioral units in which energy is consistently directed toward attaining a particular goal.

I have made over eighty PowerPoint presentations, each aimed at a particular audience to achieve a desired effect. Some I have made in a day, others have taken me months to perfect. Each slide has its place in the series so it adds to the plot by which the overall show builds to a fitting finale.

Each such presentation is the result of a project to which I give my focused attention to the same program over time, with frequent breaks lasting hours, days, or weeks between sessions. Eventually I finish a given show and move on to the next.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal, Bar Harbor, Maine, USA

One show I call “Heavy Metal” was built from photographs of cast-iron drain and manhole covers on the streets of Bar Harbor. Some castings were made in Portland, Maine, others in Canada, France, or India. It took me several weeks of patrolling the streets on the lookout for variations on my theme. When the lighting was wrong, I went back several times until it was right (showing the texture and design of the metal to good effect).

Fungal underworld

Hidden habitat of fungal underworld

My wanderings may have appeared random, but each foray contributed to the overall effect, and eventually I judged the project finished, then moved on to the next—the secret underworlds beneath caps of mushrooms, stems of trees in the Acadian Forest, estuary wildlife, horseshoe crabs, eelgrass meadows, and so on. Each show resulting from a project of concerted effort assembled over time.

 

Solo horseshoe crabs

Two solo horseshoe crabs pass side-by-side

Along with the core psychic dimensions of memory, sensory impressions, understanding, comparison, values, and emotions, another dimension of our personal intelligence situated between perception and action is awareness of extension and duration provided by the sense of spacetime as the medium of experience.

Perception from a stable point of view—such as from a seat in a theater or stadium with the gaze fixed on one spot, or while listening to music with eyes closed—such fixed attention results in awareness of changes over time that are not the result of personal action. These changes in the world exist in the medium we call time.

Action resulting in bodily motions—as walking through woods while brushing branches aside, or slaloming down a steep slope while swinging one’s center of gravity side-to-side—such changes resulting from bodily movements alter the perspective from which we view the world, so those changes are generated by an agent moving through the medium we refer to as space.

Most awareness of change exists in the combined medium of active engagement in which both self and world are changing simultaneously in the combined medium of spacetime when we are both subject and object, actor and perceiver at the same instant in the same place.

Our actions take our minds into the world; our senses invite the world into our minds. When we act and perceive simultaneously, we engage some small part of the world so that we make a difference to it just as it makes a difference to us. In that sense, we participate in the ongoing life of the world while the world affects our innermost selves, creating what I call a loop of engagement in which we are most truly alive.

When our engagements are successful from our point of view, we are flooded with happiness. Think of Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire. When they fail, we feel like we just lost the World Series or presidential election. Gloom and doom descend until we manage to right ourselves and get back on our feet.

Sitting fixed in our seats before a monitor, TV, or film screen, we observe car chases, explosions, and world-changing events without benefit of lifting even a finger, so we walk away without a scratch as if nothing had happened, and we are none the wiser for the time we have spent sitting comfortably in our seats because we have invested so little energy in staying put.

On a treadmill or stationary bike, we can go for miles putting in the effort without a change of scene, ending where we started, putting in our time by the clock, exhausting ourselves, but gleaning not one iota of experience. Treadmills were invented to do work (raise water from ditch to field, grind grain, power bicycles), but exercise machines are made to accomplish nothing at considerable expenditure of energy. We live in a world of phony engagements that take place in no real place and no real time, other than the illusions we create for ourselves while striding manfully ahead or being “entertained.”

Are we any happier for making the effort? If we generate endorphins that lessen our pain or even create a state of euphoria, perhaps we are. But is the world any happier at being left out of our one-sided exercise? Is Ginger any happier when Fred dances alone or with someone else?

There is an art to our engagements and that is in sharing our good times and great places with others so that we are happy together and grow closer as a result. We don’t just exist in time and space, but use them to good advantage in creating a more joyful world around us. We extend ourselves and endure to the benefit of not only ourselves but those with whom we share our one Earth, which benefits the Earth as a whole.

Such efforts seat us firmly at the heart of nature, culture, community, and family, so, yes, they are positive and generate happiness as a result. Looking around today’s world, however, we see people in all corners wreaking havoc and destruction by imposing their views on others by force. Such actions do not promote personal engagements but render them impossible, creating enemies of people unknown to one another.

Wise use of the time and place we are born to is the very essence of our lives. According to that scenario, many find happiness, yet billions of people just barely scrape by. Are we here to create the greatest amount of misery we can with what resources we’ve got for the brief span we are allowed under the conditions that prevail? Many act as if that were their creed.

The point of our lives is to prove that can’t be so. We do this through the daily engagements we create in the limited time and space we have available to us. We start by getting out of bed in the morning and being fully ourselves.

Impairments to the intelligent use of time and space include hearing-, vision, and memory-loss; addictions of all sorts; inattention, distraction, set habits, isolation, sensory deprivation, over-stimulation, preoccupation; affective disorders; the full autism spectrum; schizophrenia; disaffection; post-traumatic stress disorder; bipolar disorder; violence; and warfare.