What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.

 

Wayfarers all, what are we but course correctors, ever vigilant to steer ourselves clear of reefs all around? To find our way through the uncharted seas ahead?

I view emotions as signaling the relative success (positive or negative, good or bad) of our engagements in furthering the journeys we are making for ourselves. Positive emotions such as joy, happiness, and a general well-being confirm our progress, while disorders of engagement as marked by frustration, anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and loneliness signal that we are lost to ourselves.

Emotions tell us how we are doing in making our rounds of engagement. We are fearful of or angry at those who thwart or interrupt us, and smile upon those who cooperate and help us on our way.

Darwin pointed to this duality of emotions at the core of our being:

As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives according as they lead to this end; as happiness is an essential part of the general good and the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Merrill and Baker, n.d. [text c. 1974], page 699, my italics).

Better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad—so do we wend our way every day of our lives as guided by a compass of emotion that tells us whether we are on course or not toward the great end of happiness. Darwin wrote of the greatest-happiness principle as a moral force in the context of moral instincts and behavior, but I think the principle applies to our every engagement, with our innermost selves—the intelligence situated at the core of our being—as the judge of our relative failure or success.

What I am saying in this series of posts is that we steer our way through our life’s engagements by a compass that gauges the duality of our happiness and success on an emotional scale. And further, that the space between the poles of that duality is precisely what we are conscious of as we go along.

Nowhere is that duality more evident than in our dreams, which highlight our yearnings as regarded from a perspective of helpless inactivity imposed by sleep during which we cannot connect our intentions to our actions by any means. In that sense, dreams narrate the drama of our good intentions—and inevitable failure to go where we wish to go and do what we wish to do.

Here is the verbatim report of a dream I had on December 4, 2013, that reflects the state of my mind when my loops of engagement were stymied time after time, yet I remained at the helm with my raw feelings exposed. A wayfarer without navigation skills, I couldn’t engage in a meaningful way with the situation I found myself in, so things inevitably went from bad to worse.

I am hired to operate a big electronic machine. I have two assistants to work with me, but no one has explained how the machine works, so I feel strong pressure to explain it to my helpers, but I can’t live up to that responsibility. I have the machine moved outside to be where other machines are. I wait for instructions, which don’t come. To get back in the building, we all must climb up the forty-five-degree slope of the loading dock made of slippery metal. The climb is arduous. After climbing the ramp twice and slipping back, I say I won’t do it again, so am shown an alternate route up the back wall of a dark room where my superiors are meeting around a table. I hear my name mentioned as I scale the back wall to reach a narrow (horizontal) cupboard door at ceiling level that I must crawl through. It leads to a kitchen shelf in an adjoining room where two men are preparing food. I apologize for getting in their way, but imagine the meeting’s view of my legs sticking out of the narrow opening as I barely squeeze through it. I have a strong sense of the direction I must take to get back to work along a metal-lined walkway up a steep slope and along slippery rocks. I wear boots and keep slipping back, making no headway. I wake up while slipping back once again.

To me, that is a clear portrait of a mind that is driven to act, but can’t act effectively because it can’t engage in a meaningful exchange with significant features of its surroundings. That mind is my dream mind, pursuing happiness, but being thwarted at every turn because I have no means of enacting my intentions.

It is precisely the feel or texture of such thwarted adventures that fuels the bulk of my dreams. There is no on-the-spot revision or change of course, no learning from experience. Each such dream situation depicts a series of errors without correction. My dreams are one-dimensional, relentlessly rushing on from situation to situation without any course adjustments whatever.

I find myself navigating without judgment—because as helmsman, I can’t turn the wheel, or it is broken. It is always a relief to wake up and return to my senses, to effectively engage my world once again by getting up, washing my face, and performing such a simple task as making breakfast. That, I discover again and again, is a source of true happiness in being both conscious and in control of my destiny.

 

Biological values and situated emotions are two of the primary motivators that guide us in weighing evidence and deciding what to do. We all require air, water, food, rest, shelter, and companions to survive in most situations. We build (or select) cultures around ourselves as a group to meet these and other needs on a reliable basis within the habitats where we live.

Emotions are our primary resource and guide in meeting the many situations we face on our own during our daily engagements. Fear, anger, loathing, envy, sympathy, love, and joy not only stir us to action in proportion to their motivating strength, but their positive or negative polarity directs us to either seek or avoid situations in which they arise.

Our situated intelligence, the “I” at our core, initiates a round of engagement by converting the meaning of a given situation as perceived into a course of action appropriate to our experience in such a situation.

The valenced or polarized drive of emotion provides the key to the self’s judgment on the basis of that meaning. Fight or flight? Good or bad? Glad or sad? Love or spite? If the incoming perception agrees with our intentions, we judge it to be a positive state of affairs and we will do what we can to further that agreement.

If, on the other hand, perception disagrees with or opposes our prior intentions, then our judgments might well depart from what we did earlier and we revise our behavior to remedy the situation by taking a different tack.

The self or situated intelligence is where incoming and outgoing signals are linked together on the basis of our current judgment of harmony or discord, suitability or inappropriateness, liking or loathing. That judgment is a conscious expression of our personal intelligence in combining the diverse forces acting upon us into a coherent course of action.

In writing these words, I continuously edit what I have just written to better accord with what I am trying to say. The work of engaging is ongoing and requires judgment at every round. I write, read, rewrite, reread, continuously adjusting my stream of activity until I am happy (or at least not dissatisfied) with what I have put down, and move on to the next thought.

What I am after in writing this reflection is a sense of personal integrity that represents my inner workings as I truly know them from inside my mind.

In wallpapering the front room of a house I was living in over forty years ago, I chose a colonial pattern in pale blue that I thought was attractive while not calling undue attention to itself. Stepping back to view the first strip I had hung behind the door, I realized I had hung the pattern upside-down. It was too late to remove it, so I had no choice but to continue, taking care to right my error, beginning with the second strip.

As it turned out, the pattern was so subtle, it was hard to tell the difference between the first two strips. By looking closely, I could see it, but no one ever mentioned my mistake. Even so, I have remembered it for half of my life.

That long-ago lack of scrutiny and judgment has stuck in my brain as a major flaw ever since. A flaw in my integrity that I need to draw attention to, and apologize for. A cautionary tale. A life lesson to myself, earned through trial and error.

As my confounding “solstice” with “solace” in a sentence (long forgotten) that I spoke to my father, a teacher of English, who was in the driver’s seat when I as an adolescent was getting into the back seat of the family car, a mistake that made me feel stupid then, and embarrasses me even now fifty years later. That mistake in that situation will go with me to the grave because I felt so stupid at the time.

 

 

Another way of looking at consciousness is to think of it as a result of the comparison between mental possibilities and actualities. Possibilities, that is, offered by the many routes through the neural network making up our potential memory system, in comparison with the actuality of specific sensory traffic as it threads a particular route in and among those almost limitless possibilities.

Sometimes the electrochemical sensory traffic flows by a familiar route and is quickly recognizable. At other times it takes a novel route never traveled before, so must be accompanied by strong emotion if it is to be remembered and made recognizable upon recurrence.

As I visualize it, the routing determines the general type of pattern being engaged, the actual neural traffic determines the experience of the perceiver in dealing with a detailed sensory example of that pattern. The difference between potential route and actual traffic resulting in what we are conscious of.

The duality exhibited by many pairs of concepts is no accident. Good/bad, happy/sad, gravity/levity, win/lose, love/hate, near/far, up/down, easy/hard, and so on and on. In each pair of opposites, one is desirable in a given life situation, the other less so. Such terms are the gleanings of felt and heightened comparisons we make every moment of every day, the waypoints by which we navigate through life.

The space created by these daily comparisons defines us as conscious beings doing our best to correct the errors of judgment and engagement we make in leading our everyday lives. Without such discrepancies and polarities, we’d have nothing to arouse our attention, no need to adjust our heading in life, so we’d lose our way in a fog of raw awareness in the instant, the next instant, and the next after that.

A helmsman relies on his compass in gauging the difference between his actual heading and his intended course; he makes a corresponding correction again and again. His action in turning the wheel is aimed at correcting his heading to align more closely with the course he has charted beforehand. He is conscious of the disparity between heading and course; his consciousness lives in the mental space defined by that difference.

A helmsman is a nautical wayfarer steering his way through a sea of alternative routes from one port to another. We are born to be helmsmen (helmswomen) and wayfarers in our own minds, earning our consciousness by facing into the possibility of being off-course at any moment in any situation. It is the difference between being on or off course in all sorts of weather that determines whether or not we arrive at our port of choice.

In our conscious minds, evolution has endowed each of us with an internal compass to navigate by. Developing the navigational skills to make good use of that compass is up to us individually.