(Copyright © 2009)

OK, so we wake up in the crazy house of our minds. Trusted institutions are falling apart, making us feel like we are falling apart. The world we thought was so real and reliable turns out to be only the shaky fantasy we chose to believe in. Now we get it: the real world is the natural world, the one we have turned our backs on to make it easier to dream the American dream. We’ve never been good at checking our facts—must have been sick the day they taught that in school.

The hardest of all lessons is that minding your own store—your personal consciousness—is a job that cannot be outsourced. Personal judgment is just that, a responsibility each of us must meet for herself. The buck for directing our own outlook and behavior stops with us. Which is the reason for seeking the deepest, broadest life experience we can get, whether through hard knocks or a good education.

It is not enough to stand before the mirror peering at our exteriors. The problem lies within. Self-knowledge is the key to each of us improving our share of the world situation. But how do we get it? Amazon doesn’t stock either Self-Knowledge for Dummies or the CliffNotes study guide. Yet if we want to avoid an even worse institutional collapse in the future, we’ve all got to rip off the blinders and take a good look at ourselves—from the inside where our attitudes and actions originate, not the outside we’ve grown so accustomed to.

The good news is that gaining self-knowledge is really less daunting than it might seem. And doesn’t require going to school; it’s something you can do for yourself. My suggestion is to take the idea of a personal interpreter seriously (see Reflection 86: Interpretation, about Michael Gazzaniga’s proposed left-brain interpreter module) and go looking for it in your everyday experience.

What it takes is curiosity and persistence in pursuing details of your personal makeup no one ever told you about. First, consider how much of what you do and say is based on your own integrity as a person, and how much is based on the authority of someone else. What others advise you to do reflects their interpreter—their spin—not yours. Take a look at the advice you give yourself. That is a direct route to your personal authority—your very own left-brain interpreter. 

Yes, it may sound crazy, but no crazier than the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into by not attending to how we make meaning of our lives—as if it was just common sense.

Our respective left-brain interpreters can be in only one mind, so each functions independently. Its job description was crafted through eons of evolution to make sense of the many situations it finds itself in—suiting its actions to them as appropriately as it can.

The second stage of discovering the interpreter is to keep asking yourself, “Now, why did I do (say, or think) that?” Whatever answer you find in yourself will probably be told in the interpreter’s voice. Keep asking; keep listening for a response. If you question yourself because you truly want to know, you will eventually hit upon answers to your inquiries.

Which is not to say that there’s a resident homunculus in your head, a little imp who does your mental work for you—or an infinite regression of such imps monitoring one another. No, this is your one and only mind in action, its various facets working in concert to present the outward and visible impression that you are utterly sure of yourself in any situation (even when you’re not).

Your interpreter is the heart of the consciousness your genetic heritage has bequeathed to you. There is no airspace between you and your interpreter. It is with you always. Monitoring your interpreter is the key to self-knowledge because it is what makes you who you are. When you ask a question, your interpreter wants to know. When you answer one, it is your interpreter that comes online to promote your personal wellbeing in any given situation.

Having become acquainted with your interpreter, you can begin to watch your own consciousness in action making sense of its inner world in different situations involving different actors, issues, locations, goals, and rules of behavior. One of the clearest views of the interpreter is provided during game-playing behavior. Games are always situational, and we always (sometimes) play by the rules, rooting for our personal or home team—the one we identify with. In doing so, we adopt a certain perspective which the interpreter in us staunchly defends. If we switch teams, it makes an adjustment and just as surely defends our new perspective. You can catch yourself in the act of making sense under novel circumstances which emerge during games.

One thing you can learn by keeping tabs on your interpreter is that it doesn’t always play fair. It makes sense the best it can, which sometimes doesn’t meet a very high standard because it is subject to inhibition from other quarters of consciousness, such as the boss standing behind you, or your mother showing up. The interpreter is only human just like you. Its foibles are your foibles. It sometimes tries to make a good impression without putting its heart into it. It flatters, it tries to impress, it pretends to know more than it does.

Getting to know your interpreter is getting to know yourself. All it takes is watching yourself being yourself. That way lies hope for a better world in that you can see yourself playing games, and so watch for self-deception. Then you can be on the level with the world when you act without having to cover up your hidden motives. All this will be revealed when you get on familiar terms with the interpreter module in your brain.

You will get to know yourself in a new light, which can be endlessly entertaining (if sometimes shocking or embarrassing). Take a look at your resume, for instance, to see if your interpreter might have had a hand in it. Or watch yourself come on to a person you find attractive. Listen to yourself tell your children where babies come from, why the dog ate the cookies left for Santa, why you didn’t get the report in on time as you promised your supervisor, why Harvard has no record of your attending classes, the Army no paperwork on your service in Vietnam.

In the interests of full disclosure, I declare that almost the entirety of this blog has been whispered in my ear by my personal interpreter trying to make sense of what it can know within its own theater of activity. Mohamed gave similar credit to the Angel Gabriel, his pet name for his interpreter. Almost the whole of philosophy, psychology, and theology have been scripted by interpreters inclined to justify themselves to the world. Some clever people make a living by turning their interpreters to the writing of fiction informed by doings in the only mind they have privileged access to. There is more than ample precedence for conducting a study of your own conscious mind.

Give it a try. It’s the only route I know that might help us all contribute to making a better world. Humility comes first, then vigilance, then action within our true sphere of competence!

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Reflection 47: Stewardship

January 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989 was due to a failure of consciousness. So was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. As was the Visigoth sacking of Rome led by Alaric in 410 CE, and likely the Achaean sacking of Troy in the 11th-century BCE. In modern times, global warming and sea-level rise result from similar failures of consciousness, along with the Enron hoax, America’s preemptive war in Iraq, unsustainable lifestyles, the current recession, Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion scam, among other catastrophes due to lax regulation and oversight—personal and otherwise.

 

Consciousness is the control center of deliberate human activity. Much of what we do in the world is subject to its governance, including actions meant to gain an advantage by deceiving others who are not privy to our schemes and desires. Let the buyer beware, we say. Which we take as a license for perpetrating all manner of malevolent tomfoolery. Human nature? There you have a good portion of it. Resulting in much of the chaotic behavior we see around us on all sides. And, truth be told, which we ourselves indulge in when we think no one is looking.

 

Bernie Madoff would never take advantage of his friends, he’s just not that kind of guy. Except he is precisely that kind of guy and no one suspected. American consumers would never be stupid enough to sacrifice planet Earth for a few moments of comfort and convenience. Except, that is exactly who we are. Not collectively in the mass, but individually, each and every one. Especially those of us whose way of life demands maximum consumption of Earth’s limited resources.

 

Failures of consciousness are failures of vigilance, of personal husbandry and stewardship. Husbandry refers to careful management of resources. Stewardship comes from an ancient word meaning “to watch out for.” It has overtones of being aware, wary, watchful, and respectful. A steward is a kind of guard, keeper, or warden of nature’s gifts to us all. Consciousness is each person’s head steward. Its job is oversight of personal behavior to make sure it is appropriate to particular situations. When consciousness is devious, distracted, drunk, or asleep at the helm, anything goes.

 

Denial, secrecy, and subterfuge are means of throwing consciousness off track when it comes to governing our affairs. Here’s an example:

 

I am a member of a bay management advisory group on the coast of Maine. Our aim is to take fisheries management to a new level consistent with the ecological health of marine and estuarine ecosystems. Not along the entire coast, but in one small bay serving as a kind of prototype for exploring more effective ways of managing coastal resources.

One way of doing that might be to declare the bay a marine sanctuary or protected area. But Mainers have strong sympathies with folks who make a living at sea, so our group has adopted the double objective of protecting ecosystems and fishermen both through a strong emphasis on stewardship for the sake of sustainability.

          Which is where consciousness comes in. To set a limit on how much of a given resource (scallops, mussels, sea urchins, kelp, etc.) can be taken from the bay without disturbing the ecosystems they depend on, we have to figure how much of each resource is present in the bay, and set an allowable catch as a reasonable percentage of that total. Then we ask fishermen to report daily on their catch of target species and bycatch (of incidental species). Which requires stock assessments for each species, meaning someone has to dive down and count the population per unit area. That is, bring the bay’s actual situation into consciousness, along with the daily catch. If we can’t set the allowable catch as a percentage of the potential catch, we would be working in the dark and might as well pick a random number of pounds as allowable—or give up ecosystem-based management altogether.

          Fishermen are largely opposed to any kind of oversight aimed at their activities out on the water. They prefer confidentiality to transparency. I can’t blame them; who likes backseat drivers, even when they’re lost? Regulatory measures such as quotas, no-take zones, and harvest seasons go against their grain. But accurate stock assessments and mandatory reporting are essential if sustainable harvests are to become a reality. Thereby putting strong pressure on fishermen to become stewards of the marine ecosystems they depend on. Which is a little like appointing a fox as henhouse steward. Or like electing a realtor as head of the local planning board.

 

You see the problem. Consciousness is essentially a private and personal affair, whereas social interactions are best based on transparency and full disclosure. We can never be sure what lurks in another’s mind. If we cannot base our relationships on honesty, then we are wise to become cynics and suspect the worst.

 

What a sorry state of affairs. Amply illustrated by the current state of the world. Sink the Titanic, wreck the Earth—same thing. It’s not that consciousness is inherently flawed, it’s more the way we mortals apply it. We make the mistake of thinking our situation as we view it is at the heart of the real world. What do we know? Very little, it turns out, of all there is to be known. We are like fruit flies dreaming we are the point of life and run the whole show.

 

In the example above I used the phrase, “Stewardship for the sake of sustainability.” Which requires taking a larger view of the world stage than our personal situations allow. Consciousness is fine, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t cover very much of all that’s happening on Earth. We act in small and selfish ways on a planet that nurtures us all. Collectively, our acts are more than Earth can bear.

 

What to do? We’ve all got to become good stewards of the personal bailiwicks consciousness presents to us rather than sacking them for our short-term advantage as if they did not connect to every other bailiwick and to our common Earth as a whole. Which means acting not for ourselves alone, but acting as if we were delegates of Earth itself, which we are. That is, we have to rediscover transparency as an essential value so that in acting in light of personal consciousness we are acting on behalf of consciousness as a planetary accomplishment. We are conscious, not for ourselves alone, but for Earth itself. We are Earth’s eyes and ears.

 

That is what becoming stewards demands of us: being stewards unto ourselves so that we may share in the sustainability of all. Which is the opposite of the Bernie Madoff approach. It is up to us to take the initiative and do unto others as a sustainable Earth requires, not as a reflection of our puny selves-writ-large would do unto us.

 

Honesty, stewardship, and transparency first; sustainability will follow as a matter of course. That is one challenge humanity is facing (the other big one is our excessive population). Are we up to it? Each of us has the basic equipment. It is our choice whether to skillfully apply it or not.

 

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