The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

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What Sumerian priests discovered 5,400 years ago was synchrony between goings-on in the night sky and human labors on Earth below—on both daily and yearly scales of events.

What they didn’t discover was the cause of that dual synchrony in the daily rotation of Earth on its axis, together with its annual and seasonal journey around the sun, with the planes of those two motions tilted at an angle of twenty-three-and-a-half degrees one to the other.

Instead, the stars and planets themselves were credited with their own self-propulsive powers as inherent in the cosmic order fulfilled nightly overhead.

How marvelous that daily and yearly procession must have seemed. It was truly a revelation. A grasping of the stunning difference between chaos and cosmos, disorder and order. What a powerful idea! That a system with so many moving parts was ruled by the gratifying harmony of motion that joined Earth, planets, sun, moon, and stars in unison together as one idea or system of ideas. Not for a day, a season, a year, but—as evidence and wonder accrued from generation to generation—seemingly forever.

If we put ourselves in that era of grand discovery, the temple priests who formulated that formative cosmology were clearly on the leading edge of their personal experience, and the collective experience of their people.

Their grand vision of cosmic harmony (as of 3,200 BCE), combined with belief that the power of self-motion was shared by stars, planets, and humans as indubitable proof of the motive power of the living soul (because only living beings could move of their own will)—that coupling of ideas was the intellectual achievement of their time in expressing their early grasp of cosmology in the intuitive concept that bound human understanding and labor to the very force that drove the universe.

It was apparently the Sumerians who saw that each point of light in the sky reflected the overall scheme of a world (or cosmic) soul as the driving force behind the evidence they beheld with their own eyes.

Do stars have meaning for humans? Indeed, as profound as meaning can be. Practical meaning. Cultural meaning. Historic meaning. Religious meaning. Aesthetic meaning. Ideal meaning. Survival meaning. All taken together surely amounting to the truth. Or at least an approximation of the truth. A truth that would stand until a more durable one came along. A truth in the fallible human mind. Which, no matter how many people believe it, is where all concepts-ideas-thoughts-truths reside.

The fragility of this particular truth was compounded in coming generations by the combined musings of Plato, Aristotle, and both their Neoplatonist and Christian heirs early in the new millennium—unto Thomas Aquinas and the builders of Mediaeval cathedrals who expressed this singular truth in stone and stained glass—in idealizing and personifying the idea that drives the universe as the principle of absolute reason, goodness, and harmony at the core of a universe such as they chose to believe in.

 

Projected onto the stars, the meaning that some of our distant ancestors found in their orderly procession was that they were compelled as one body by a prime mover, alleged source of, and driving force behind, the rational, harmonious order of the universe.

The notion of a prime mover was wholly a fiction in human minds, a product of deluded imaginations in not being able to detect their own planet’s motions because as a people they moved with the Earth and had no reference other than the stars to gauge that impression by.

So if the stars seemed to move, that was enough to convince them that that must be the true state of affairs. Many believed it, and said so. Opening the door to a myriad of profound consequences, which still persist among us today.

Wars have been fought, millions killed, heretics burned at the stake as a result of such beliefs, or, rather, the denial of such beliefs. Those deadly consequences, as residing in human minds as matters of orthodox faith and belief, are what I am concerned with in these several posts dealing with our human engagements with the stars as I develop the big picture based on my reading and experience.

Along with the concept of one turning in reference to the nightly round of the stars, several other concepts accompany that of the prime mover; the idea of harmony as the essentially rational and defining characteristic of the stars moving in unison to constitute a cosmos in contrast with a disordered chaos; and the idea that deviation from harmony was a message played like notes against a musical scale intended to call people on Earth back into harmony with the circling stars.

The five visible, star-like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), as well as sun and moon, did not share in the disciplined rotation of the stars, but travelled their own ways among them along a broad pathway of their own in the middle reaches of the stars overhead. That pathway was not random but stuck to a middle way along a particular band of stars that ancient peoples visualized as forming twelve houses or constellations, the band coming to be known as the ecliptic, the celestial path among the stars along which the messenger planets (Greek angelos, messenger) traveled and, when those paths coincided, conjunctions and eclipses might occur.

The twelve, thirty-degree zodiacal houses (constellations) along the ecliptic were deified as domains ruled in monthly succession by twelve godlike figures, together forming the ring of zodiacal signs marking the progress of the seven angelic messengers.

No one realized that that background of stellar houses was far behind the moving planets, so had nothing at all to do with them because it seemed to observers on earth that the stars and planets were equidistant, so that the luminous messengers traveled among and briefly resided in stellar houses that existed solely in human imagination.

Once the stars became animated by ancient humans projecting their quest for order onto the cycling radiance overhead, the stage was set for conception and projection of prime movers, creators, supreme beings, and rulers of the (supposedly) one-turning universe.

The stars and the messengers weaving among them bore whatever meanings arose in those who projected their minds in beseeching the cosmos for guidance in conducting their Earthly lives and affairs. Temples and sanctuaries such as those structures at Göbekli Tepe, Stonehenge, and in Sumer at the head of the Persian Gulf were in many instances built as stellar observatories to mediate the traffic of signs between heaven and Earth, local authorities assuming the office of translator of heavenly messages so their followers would receive the proper message and behave accordingly.

So did religion become a fact of life on Earth in binding human labors to the will of the gods above, or most particularly to the will of the prime mover who set the cosmos in orderly motion for the purpose of inviting humans, if they knew what side their bread was buttered on, to partake in the rational order exemplified by the stars overhead.

Sumerian minds, looking up from their marshy homeland in the delta of the combined waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, became famous for conceiving of such deities (shining or radiant ones, later depicted with haloes) some five- or six-thousand years ago.

Among other gifts to their descendants, the Sumerians are now famous for leaving behind them a great trove of statuettes of worshippers with folded hands and dilated, dark-adapted eyes, only much later to be discovered by archaeologists within the past 150 years.

The figures depict worshippers in the grips of a variety of fraught human situations beneath the stars at night, looking to be told by the messenger stars what to do because that was their duty, to heed the will of Sumerian gods.

What the Sumerians invented—along with cuneiform writing on clay tablets; an extensive literature of poetry, myths, lamentations, hymns, and wise sayings; and religion built around a priestly profession as we know it today—was an intricate system of awe so lustrous as to have a compelling effect in organizing the behavior of a people who sought answers to their most pressing problems from the seemingly informative movements of the planets weaving among the orderly motions of stars along the ecliptic.

The Sumerians placed not one but three gods in the heavens, one for each of the three regions: celestial polar region, residence of the creator and prime mover, Anu: zodiac against which the seven messengers moved, ruled by Enlil, king of the gods; and outer fringe thought to be closest to Earth on the outskirts of the cosmic dome, home of Enki, source of divine wisdom.

It was a great scheme by which the Sumerians mapped out the heavens some 5,400 years ago, a scheme still with us today in the doctrine and structures of the church. The essential teaching of that scheme was “On Earth as in Heaven,” a notion backed up by the seasonal return of the sun to the same house along the ecliptic, signing the start of a new year and another round of the liturgical calendar. Genius; pure genius. Because it was true: human affairs on Earth do run according to a calendar dictated by the seasons, and the seasons by the stars.

The hitch is that it wasn’t that the stars were moving according to the prime mover’s plan, so seeming to dictate to people what they should be doing with their limited bodily energies; those stellar motions were really due to Earth’s daily rotation about its axis and simultaneous orbit around the sun. There was no prime mover at the celestial pole. There was no godly king of kings managing the motions of planets along the ecliptic. There was no divine wisdom filtering down from the stars for human guidance.

We already had the seasons to alert us to our proper annual labors; the stars were incidental to what we already knew. They were an offshoot, not the source of our wisdom. The stars told us nothing we didn’t already know.

It was the Sumerian priesthood that maintained that the heavens were the center of Sumerian life on Earth, and that the people needed their lofty interpretation of signs and directives—otherwise they’d be out of a job. Priesthoods offer the best job security on Earth if they can convince flocks to behave as they already know they should.

There is a font of circular reasoning at the heart of every religion. And we have such a plethora of religions precisely because each one has to develop a convincing rationale for the people to support the local priesthood in its annual rounds of reasoning.

These comments are what I was talking about in developing the big picture of our human engagements with the stars. For much of my life I have read Joseph Campbell, Samuel Noah Kramer, E.O. James, and James Frazer, and others of similar bent in bringing ancient ideas to life. For me this has been recreational reading to accompany my fascination with fossils and the expanding literature of evolutionary biology. Looking both to the past and the future, I was doing my best to keep pace with the world I lived in, which was expanding at an ever increasing rate.

My bookshelves today are lined with such books, testament to the interests that have sustained me throughout adult life. Now that my life is winding down, the residuum of my reading takes on a greater importance because I see so much harking back to a more comfortable (because familiar) world rather than a willingness to enter the next stage of human development and understanding. If I do not contribute to that understanding, why have I lived through the past exciting years?

So here I sit at my computer keyboard in Bar Harbor, Maine, blogging about what matters to me at my time of life, adding my thoughts and observations to the great flow of human engagement with our Earthly surroundings.

Should I live so long, you can expect that I’ll have more to say about our stellar engagements tomorrow.

444. Double-take on Community

February 27, 2015

Look. And look again. You might not see the same thing two times in a row. When I look at Bar Harbor in winter, I see a small New England town covered in snow (as it is today while I focus on this post). It has that Currier-and-Ives feel about it. In summer I see a bustling tourist town filled to the brim with strangers just milling around wondering what to do next, clogging the sidewalks and streets. There are days (when several cruise ships are in, for example) I wish I could hibernate like Taunton Bay horseshoe crabs for six months of the year—just dig a hole in the mud and retire from the scene for six months. Pretend the tourist season never happened.

The irony being that shop and motel owners are blissfully happy on the very same days that I am down in the dumps. They are deeply invested in the economy of Bar Harbor, and that economy barely limps along in the winter, but runs full-steam-ahead from July through October while I think of hibernating.

 

Bar Harbor in Summer

With a cruise ship in, the streets of Bar Harbor teem with summer visitors.

That double-take is the result of the delta signal in my brain between good times and bad. At either extreme of happiness or deep disturbance, that is the signal that alerts consciousness to pay close attention to what’s going on because we’re sure to be affected one way or the other. If we had fair weather and smooth sailing every day of the year, we’d have no need for consciousness because we could just set the tiller and let the boat steer itself while we didn’t have a thought in our heads.

But that isn’t how our little worlds work. We all have ups and downs, often several times a day. Depending on how we adapt to the situations we are in as they change for better or worse. Those situations aren’t the issue, it’s how we take them from our current perspective. Sometimes the very same situation sets us off in ways that are diametrically opposed. It depends on our mood at the time, what we had for lunch, how well we slept the previous night.

As always, we’re in for the long haul, so slide from good times to bad, or the reverse a few minutes later. Just wait a bit and we’ll get over it. Or so it is to be hoped. Being mortal means we have earned the right to change our minds. To peer out through a new pair of eyes.

I have winter and summer eyes to cast on Bar Harbor, which as a New England coastal community, is always doing its thing. I live here, so am along for the ride, whatever it brings. One thing for sure: tomorrow will be as different from today as Miami Beach is from Helsinki.

 

Card players on the town pier, summer in Bar Harbor.

Card players don’t look up to enjoy the harbor.

How we handle these dichotomies in experience is up to us, depending on how resilient we are. We can reach out with cheery spirits in an active manner to kindle engagements that might be lagging a bit. We can wave to friends and acquaintances instead of turning our backs. We can reach out to start an engagement, shake hands, pat them on the back or shoulder, share a hug, give a kiss, initiate a conversation, share a story, invite friends over for a game or for dinner.

We each have a repertory of gestures that signal our readiness to engage. Nothing is more powerful than an open smile in inviting a trusting engagement. Eyes askance or to the ground signal otherwise.

Even at work where we are expected to do our job, we can do it with a style that includes others in the process we are engaged in. If we seem to be enjoying ourselves, others will want to join in the fun. If we keep our head down, others will skirt our workplace by a good margin.

By synchronizing our actions with those of others, we can make it easier to be ourselves in mutual companionship, even inducing them to join us. Such activities are moderated by our strengths and needs at the time, which we can subtly broadcast in our postures, gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice.

 

Bar Harbor in Winter.

Body language on skis in wintertime Bar Harbor.

In a very real sense, communities run on the collective body language of their members at different levels of intimacy. To make anything happen, we have to select the level we want to engage on, then show up and give it a try, always being mindful of the level appropriate to that occasion.

The stuff that communities are built of is not bricks and mortar but flesh and blood. And something else: human minds. Each unique, each in a mood of its own. No two communities are the same because their prime constituents are highly specific. For that reason, it is dangerous to generalize about the nature of communities. With a different mix of unique inhabitants, each community is unique unto itself.

Since communities are the warm seas that bathe our minds, we want them to harbor us as contentedly as we enjoy them. Harmony between a place and its residents is the watchword, even if seldom achieved. There it is again, that helical loop of hospitality and gratitude between a one-celled organism and its surroundings.

We humans are no different in depending absolutely on the nurturing engagements we establish with the communal niches that provide for us. Every community is just such a niche in providing water, clean air, food, shelter, work, companionship, and much else.

The polarity of the relationship we establish says it all: this is the good life, I like it, I approve, I want to stay here; in contrast with: this is the pits, I hate it, I disapprove, I can’t wait to get away.

To get clear with ourselves, we intuitively react in such passionate terms. Our minds are made to sharpen distinctions in our minds so we think and feel in bold strokes. Our minds do the heavy shading for us so we won’t miss the point in a wash of subtle tones. Fish or cut bait, stay or move on, help or get lost.

People pay good money to ride on roller-coasters to remind them they are alive in two different ways—up and down, good and bad. Being alive means having choices. Choices and decisions require backing consciousness with sound judgment. Whizzing us up and down, life is guaranteed to deliver just such a ride, testing our judgment on every hill and valley.

Please note: I usually have second thoughts about hibernating for the duration of a summer in Bar Harbor. I may let the throng get me down at times, but I always bounce back and take to the woods for a walk, or Taunton Bay for a row. This year I’ve had thoughts of hibernating under all this snow. Just dig a hole next to my poppy bed and hunker down where the snow will serve as insulation from the chill blast out of Canada. It’s not that bad things never happen. Our paramount skill is in being resilient no matter what comes our way.

That’s it for my posts on the topic of community. Now it’s on to the family level of our engagement with the world, which I will explore from my point of view in upcoming posts.

Early human settlements were commonly located on the banks of lakes, streams, or wetlands where water for drinking, fishing, hunting, washing, removing waste, and boating was readily available. London was founded at the junction where the River Fleete flowed into the Thames Estuary, New York between the Hudson and East Rivers, Rome on the Tiber, Paris on the Seine, Alexandria in the Nile Delta.

Communities spring up where they do for good reason, often having to do with protection from the elements, plentiful food, water, and natural resources essential to survival, together with ease of access to other areas.

People gather in communities for many reasons. We have school communities, work communities, religious communities, ethnic group communities, and common interest communities of all sorts. I see all these various groupings as communities of engagement. We gather together either formally or informally but always personally, at meetings and events, or on the Internet, to suit our common needs and interests.

In community there is strength because engagement builds connections between separate individuals. When facing difficulties, two minds are better than one. Communication by means of a common language is of the essence in building communities to meet common needs and purposes. Communities are where we learn the language(s) we will use to express our minds for the rest of our lives.

To achieve mutual benefit, all members of a community must abide by the same set of rules and expectations. In reflection 427 I suggested ten rules of engagement with nature. Local courts and law enforcement agencies enforce our formal rules of engagement with our local communities. Pay your taxes, honor contracts, don’t go bankrupt, drive on the right side of the road, and so on. If we’re late for school, we’ll be called to the office. If we’re late for work, we’ll be docked.

There are no laws requiring us to respect our neighbors, but without doubt communities depend on harmony between neighbors of all sorts. If you borrow a cup of sugar, repay the favor as soon as you can. If you borrow a lawnmower, return it all gassed-up the same day. Invite the neighbors over at least once a year, and by all means be sure the kids go to birthday parties bearing gifts when invited.

In my case, coastal Hancock County, Maine, provides the context of my personal engagements. It is the particular sector of nature and culture that I engage with every day. It is where my wayfaring feet meet the pathways of the collective society I am a member of. Community is the footprint of my personal experience on my local culture and, in turn, my culture’s footprint on my mind. In practical terms, my community is the locus of my engagements within walking (and short driving) distance of where I live.

A circle with a fifteen-mile radius around my apartment in the town of Bar Harbor embraces the coastal community (both land and water) I have engaged with for the past twenty-nine years. If I have made any kind of a mark, it would lie within that circle. Certainly that circle has left its mark on my mind.

I have a good many albums of photographs I have taken within that circle, and thousands of jpg files on my several computers. I have made a dozen aerial surveys of bays, ponds, streams, and mountains within that circle, and written four illustrated books about my natural experiences within that same geographic area.

My son and his wife blow glass within that circle, and his brother is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along with my mother, father, and two brothers. Stephen Merchant, my great-great-great-grandfather (after whom I was named), who spent the Revolutionary War in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would have been buried next to his wife in that circle had he not died at sea as crew of a ship loaded with lumber that went down off Cape Cod in “the memorable snowstorm” of November 20, 1798.

Communities write their memories on our minds, as we blaze our ways through the generations along their walks, trails, and roads. My father first met my mother at her family home within the bounds of my communal circle. He was walking from Middlebury, Vermont, to Nova Scotia in 1925 when he stopped at a colleague’s wife’s family home in Sullivan, Maine. That wife’s sister bore me as a child seven years later. My father never made it any farther along his intended journey than that stop. Had he not entered my community circle, I would not be writing this blog today.

On December 23, 1988, I left Burying Island after my two-and-a-half-year stay in the wild to live with Janwillem van de Wetering and his wife , Juanita, in Surry, Maine. Janwillem was a Duch writer of police non-procedurals based on his experiences in a Zen monastery in Kyoto. His wife was a skilled sculptor from Colombia. They were ideal hosts and companions during the two years it took me to develop a new community on the mainland centered on environmental activities.

Both Janwillem and I were on the rebound from excessive indulgence, sobered by pushing ourselves too far in searching for an ideal community to engage with, he in Zen Buddhism, I in going solo as an outlier in nature on Burying Island. We both found a sense of humor essential to our recovery. He offered me a small bedroom in an uninsulated studio on his land on the Union River near Ellsworth. Having little money, I gratefully accepted, and stayed with him and Juanita for two years.

In 1993, I took a job as a seasonal ranger at Acadia National Park, lived in park housing, and in the off-season did volunteer work in the Lands Office in exchange for a place to stay for the winter. I worked first as volunteer coordinator, then as a writer-editor in the Planning Office. My community involvement began to expand, first due to contact with over a thousand park volunteers, then through planning projects in the park and beyond.

Today I live in senior housing in Bar Harbor adjacent to the park, a more suitable habitat among many people, so I am not the conspicuous exception disturbing the natural order of my wild habitat on Burying Island, my toehold in Maine. Now retired, I serve on the Bar Harbor Housing Commission, am the token atheist member of Acadia Friends Meeting (Quakers), and spend my days writing and blogging about the miracle of consciousness as witnessed during many daily bouts of introspection. I also manage Burying Island LLC, a company that owns the island on behalf of its members among my extended family.

As I view it, our life’s energy courses through our varied engagements within our several communities. We act, and are acted upon in return, round after round of exchange. In that sense, the communities we contribute our life’s energy to are dynamic and ever-changing. Our immediate surroundings support us, as we support them, each in our own way. Community building is one of our main jobs in life.

With this blog, I am striving to contribute to a global community of conscious individuals with a shared understanding of, and appreciation for, our common endeavor.

 

(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)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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