(Copyright © 2010)

What do I mean when I say we live in our heads, or on our own private planets?

I mean, for instance: Time is a convenient fiction, a designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured. Time is a construct of the human mind. Think of your watch as a miniature model of the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth each day. When we ask what time it is, we mean in reference to that model of the sun’s fictional motion through space. Time is a game we play in our heads, extending it imaginatively backward to days before Earth and its sun were formed, all the way to the alleged big bang, and forward imaginatively to days after the sun itself or any sort of timekeeper will exists.

We loosely think of the ageing process as a product of time, as if time were an agent that causes people to grow old. But in fact age is nothing other than the collective physical and mental changes that, instead of coming from time, produce the illusion of time itself as a supposed medium making change possible. If we could manage not changing from what we are right now, we would be eternal; that is, we’d have no need for time.

Space, too is such a construct of imagination. Objects do not exist in space, they exist in relationship one to another in the human mind as viewed from a particular perspective. Space is not the medium of such relationships but a designated contextual framework overlaid upon them for the purpose of calibrating and measuring them in ways meaningful to human awareness. We find meaning in the concepts of both time and space, even though in and of themselves they are figments of the mind. Changes exist; relationships exist; and both require the presence of observers such as ourselves. Without us, time and space would not exist. Even with us being present, we demonstrably exist (we can pinch ourselves to find out), but they exist only as ideas or concepts in our thoughts, speech, and writing.

Time and space are human categorizations—ways of reaching out to the world in order to find it meaningful in terms we provide and understand. They are inventions, not discoveries, artifacts of culture, not nature. They are useful mental tools, right up there with toothbrushes and toilet paper to help us shape the world to our liking.

Laws and human rights, too, are similar categorizations, ideas projected outward as if they were properties of the world itself. If human rights were features of the world, there would also be ant rights, wolf rights, bacteria rights, virus rights, tree rights, and so on. No, it is we who maintain that human rights exist as a convenient fiction, and devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reifying, objectifying, or substantiating that idea. The propertied classes have given us the idea of private property, and crafted a maze of legal opinions to “prove” it is not merely an illusion. Imagine a robin claiming the territory around its nest as its private property to do with as it pleases, referring to words written on paper in the form of a deed to support its claim. The words make it so one creature on Earth has exclusive “ownership rights” to its portion of the planet, and can justly do battle with any rival creature that thinks otherwise. 

The scale at which we project human ideas into the world is an indicator of the scale at which we imagine those ideas in our minds. We generally don’t think overly large or small, but just right—at the scale of typical human engagements such as gestures (like waving at an approaching friend, or throwing a Frisbee or a ball), activities (flying a kite, playing football, mining a hilltop for coal), everyday structures (houses, city blocks, skyscrapers, airfields), or grand undertakings (famous battles, voyages of exploration, pandemics, missions to the moon). The resolution at which we pick out the relevant details of our lives is scaled to the dimensions of the human body and how we use it. We find it difficult to think at bedbug scale, elephant or giraffe scale, ends of the Earth scale, voyages to Mars scale, or galaxy scale. That is, the world in our heads is largely scaled to norms set by everyday personal experience. Think of Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover from the mid-1970s depicting the view west from 9th Street in Manhattan to “Hudson River,” “Jersey,” and, much diminished, the nameless far beyond.

Our personal planets are populated by myriad creatures to which we give names, forms, characteristics, and entire resumes, even though we know they aren’t really real—just pretend real—as if there were degrees of reality. But we shift from one degree to another as easily as any child captivated by Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. Films, plays, and literature depend on our not making distinctions between degrees of engagement or believability. Every advertisement presents a hokey view of reality, as does every cartoon, public relations campaign, vote in Congress, or wedding ceremony. Without being overly fussy, we choose to believe what fits into our general scheme of things at the time. Consciousness is peopled by Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, Paul Bunyan, Moses, Captain Nemo, Raskolnikoff, Aida, the Cowardly Lion, and Sugarplum Fairy. Yes, we tell our children, there is a Santa Clause, each supernatural (better, subnatural) being having a secure place near our hearts as well as in the depths of our minds.

We rush to demonize or lionize others in defending how we choose to characterize them, pointing our fingers with glee at those who fall short of or exceed our routine expectations for human behavior within what we consider a normal range. It doesn’t take more than one true confession to shift a saint to the opposite extreme of our personal Pantheon: witness Tiger Woods, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and Donald Rumsfeld. Men seem to have a hard time measuring up to their pretensions of virtue. In each of their minds they remain that innocent little kid who is not capable of doing wrong. From governor or attorney general to lowly two-timer in one day! Dontcha just love it! Everybody does. Where, then, does reality lie? Which persona is real? How are we to categorize the male animal?

Even members of the Supreme Court, who you’d hope would know where they reside, do not live in the real world. On one hand Justice John Paul Stevens takes his lived experience into account in interpreting the Constitution, as the framers must have taken their own experience in their day. On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia claims to have direct access to the intent of the framers by consulting the words they committed to paper in composing the original document, even though Earth has orbited the sun 223 times since those heady days, slaves are no longer regarded as property, women can vote, and usage of the English language has strayed far beyond the conventional bounds that prevailed in the seafaring-agrarian days of the thirteen colonies.

There is something in the human mind that loves to be fooled and to fool others. When I visit my son Michael’s grave on his birthday in February each year, I find bright blues and reds of artificial flowers with plastic greens poking from waterless jars buried in snow before other graves. Such displays always stop me in my tracks to consider the intent of placing such bouquets. Setting out real flowers at Memorial Day I can understand, but false ones out of season gives me pause. I see a show of remembrance but not remembrance itself, as if good intentions sufficed, or giving impressions was the issue. Fortunately, the dead are blind and cannot watch the little plays staged on their behalf. I am being judgmental here, a quality of mind that keeps me from adorning my son’s grave with plastic flowers from China. Usually, his grave marker is buried under snow, but I know exactly where it is in relation to the great oak overhead, and where his ashes are placed. I visit the grave to converse with the son who still lives in me, and is with me wherever I go. Where is reality, cremated and buried beneath a stone, or in my head?

We love to be fooled by slight of hand because it creates a slight of mind that is thrilling in being inexplicable. Whatever our age, magic shows make us wonder about the nature of things. How is it possible to saw a lady in half without doing violence to her body? She doesn’t seem to mind, and even wiggles her toes during the cut. Suspension of skepticism and disbelief makes children of us all. How do cars move? How do planes fly? How do pumpkins get so big? How will St. Peter react to what he reads under our name in the great ledger when we show up at the gate? Baudelaire’s characterization of genius as childhood recalled at will applies to the part of our conscious minds that defies the ageing process by staunchly staying the same throughout our lives. Or at least seems to stay the same, even if periodically updated. The child within may well be a fictional persona, but the old feeling of innocent wonder and curiosity is available to us at all times. And that feeling recalled in the face of mysterious events gives us pleasure, so once we find our way back to it, we go there as often as we can. Perhaps it is on that level that we are so taken with artificial flowers today. And read Marvel Comics as kids.

Sporting competitions bring out a similar childhood sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad. In the bleachers, we become our childhood selves once again, living solely for the moment, being fully engaged, waving our arms, jumping up, yelling with mindless abandon. When we are in that place, nothing else matters but the game being played as we see it from our childhood perspective. It is no wonder that the sports section is a fixture of the local newspaper. It invites us to release our inner child, to engage now as we did in our days of non-stop excitement and wonder. The substrate of the so-called real world is Baudelaire’s sense of genius being rooted in childhood, not to be simply recalled but relived in the moment. Meaning is there when that happens, old days mapping onto new, rejuvenating us by early concepts reaching out to sensory patterns in the now, recognizing them, making them seem familiar, and so true.

Lying in bed last night, I realized that in language, art, and music alike, patterns of relationship are everything. The brain is a seeker of relationships between patterns, and when it finds such relationships through any combination of the senses—whether simultaneous or sequential, visual or auditory, linguistic or experiential—the mind bestows meaning on those patterns in the sense of understanding what is taking place in terms it has encountered before. To understand is to wrap the now in the then, the here in the there, the new in the old, the concrete in the abstract and conceptual. All made possible by signals in the brain, wherever located, that share a recognizable rhythm. Where such neural rhythms can be appreciated in relation one to another, that is where we live because we are made to make just such connections. Learning to read is an exercise in pattern recognition and relationship. Ditto for listening to music and looking at art. Recognizing a face as familiar underwrites that face with a history, which makes it meaningful in a personal way. Discovering a familiar feel to a situation conveys meaning from memory onto that situation, even though we have never been in precisely that one before. With the result we know who we are in that place, and assume the persona of our old selves again.

Where and what is reality? It is not waiting for us to discover behind closed doors, but comes with us when we walk into a situation buzzing with patterns of stimulation we can put a familiar feel to and a name. Reality is within us as a sense of the trusted and familiar, qualities with which we reach into the unknown in hopes we will find something meaningful because recognizable. If we find no such patterns, we are not in our element, and so feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.

Cultures are known by the distinctive patterns of their ways of dressing, eating, speaking, praying, greeting, and going about the business of everyday life. They are flagrant in making themselves know to all comers. Dark pinstripe suits generally do not consort with bright colored dashikis. There is no doubt whether our familiar patterns of recognition are in keeping with those here on display or not. We know intuitively and immediately if we belong here or not—if this is our sort of place, where we know who we are because our inner and outer patterns of relationship match up without discord.

Reality is within us as a replica of patterns we acquired in childhood by being immersed in a world that danced to a certain rhythm from our earliest days. Our caregivers set the beat and the tone, joined by our siblings and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Those primal patterns are stamped into connections and disconnections between neurons in our brains established in our formative days, months, and years, giving familiar patterns an edge over unfamiliar ones, recognizable sensory patterns an advantage over the novel or strange. Reaching into the world, we are ever sensitive to those same patterns that calibrated our young minds. As pattern recognizers go, it takes one to know one.

So, as I say, the real world is within, waiting to be released into an external world that would be a formless cacophony without our being there to put it in order. Reality is our doing. We are the ones responsible for recognizing its patterns on sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Which is why, to study the world, we must first study ourselves to discover in what sort of world we truly belong. On that basis, we can then make deliberate efforts to adapt to the world we find ourselves in—to accommodate to its rhythms, dances, and ways of being—so that we belong there as well as to the world we bring with us in our heads.

NASA Reality--Eagle flying where there is no air

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Once you surrender to a higher authority, you never have to think again. No longer on your own, you serve the will of another. How reassuring that is, how comforting. As long as you bow your head in submission, you are off the hook. Which is the point, isn’t it?—not thinking for yourself, not taking risks or responsibility, not making yourself vulnerable. It’s like being a child forever, placing your trust and your life in safe hands, belonging to something bigger, wiser, and more enduring than your own mortal self. Like the National Rifle Association (NRA), which stands ever ready to do your thinking for you. But I’ll get to that.

 

First, human rights. A right is a claim such that when made, it will be backed by the authority of the state. In the case of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948—over 60 years ago—the assumption might have been that the authority of the international community would back any such claim. Or if it didn’t, Eleanor Roosevelt would personally step forward on the claimant’s behalf.

 

The Declaration begins with seven whereas clauses presenting the rationale, the last two leading to the now therefore clause revealing what actions are to be taken, culminating in the proclamation of world-wide human rights:

 

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

 

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

 

Now Therefore,

The General Assembly

proclaims

This Universal Declaration of Human Rights

 

The individual rights flow from that beginning, arrayed in thirty articles, starting with “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” through 28 more articles spelling out the climate of idealism at the end of the Second World War. Since 55 million people died in that war, it would be nice if they had not simply been wasted but had given their all for some worthy cause. Here was an after-the-fact compilation of such a cause—the basic principles for which humanity had suffered for so long.

 

After that sublime example of authority, I now turn to an absurd one in the instance of the NRA flexing its muscles to turn our reading of the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution 180 degrees in its favor. In my last post I briefly examined the logic of scripture in the instance of a selection from Paul’s first letter to Corinthians. Here I take on another heavyweight authority. In particular, the second amendment, which some interpret as granting the right to possess handguns and assault weapons to the people at large (even though AK-47s and such were unknown at the time the amendment was ratified in 1791). We are fortunate in having the NRA to interpret the intent of the Founding Fathers for us today.

 

I here break the second amendment into clauses along natural lines of cleavage set by marks of internal punctuation.

 

Amendment II.

[1] A well regulated Militia,

[2] being necessary to the security of a free State,

[3] the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,

[4] shall not be infringed.

 

In [1] the subject is not just a militia, but a well regulated militia—that is, one conforming to the principle (from Latin regula, rule) of militias by which members supply their own weapons. Such militias, according to [2], are necessary to the security of free states, in this case those joined together to form the United States. Both [1] and [2] provide justification for the actual amendment, serving as the rationale for the action specified in [3] and [4]. In this sense they serve as a whereas clause according to the well-established legal formula: Whereas such and such, now therefore the following action is taken.

 

This brings us to the heart of the amendment in [3], the right of the people to keep and bear arms . . . [cliffhanger . . . resolved in 4], shall not be infringed. Infringe means to break or violate, in this case, the law. The punctuation seems excessive by modern standards, but the form of the amendment is clearly one of cause-and-effect, or justification-and-result. Which is exactly what our left-brain interpreters require in making sure that actions taken are appropriate to the situations which call for them. Easing up on commas and capital letters, clarifying the format, the amendment now reads:

 

[Whereas] A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,

[now therefore] the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

 

Section 8 of Article 1 of the Constitution makes it clear that the federal interest in this issue was “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” This serves as another whereas clause written into the body of the Constitution itself. Armed citizens fought back the British in 1775 at Lexington and Concord with their own weapons in the service of the colony or colonies (not self-defense as now claimed).

 

Six years later in 1791, when it came to ratifying the first twelve amendments (two didn’t make it, leaving a Bill of Rights comprising amendments 1-10), the several states made it clear they wanted their own interests spelled out. The rationale was that, if the militia was to be called up on short notice to repel an insurrection in—or invasion of—one state or another, there might not be time or money to procure proper arms, so members would be expected to supply their own weapons.

 

The National Rifle Association downplays the reasons for maintaining a well regulated militia as spelled out in the Constitution. It sees nothing but what it wants to see in the second amendment, a guarantee of an individual’s right to bear arms of any and all sorts that may be available—now or subsequently—to the public. As a corporation, the NRA employs a legal staff known for the fabulous reasoning of its left-brain interpreters, dressing the wildest dreams of its members and generous supporters as rights inherent in the law of the land.

 

In this instance, an activist corporation is bent on remaking the Constitution in conformity with its private self-interest—which is largely to promote the manufacture, distribution, sale, and ownership of deadly firearms, both nationally and internationally. Not in the interest of public safety as claimed, but more to tighten the control of the military-industrial complex over the nations and peoples of the world. After all, this is the axis that enabled the U.S. to invade Iraq preemptively in 2003, and gives power to all manner of disgruntled students or workers so they can inflict killing sprees on their peers. Not in self-defense, but as vicious assaults.

 

The problem for the NRA is that the second amendment as written makes it clear that, since we no longer depend on a self-armed militia to defend ourselves, there is absolutely no guarantee of gun ownership spelled out in the federal Constitution. If the NRA finds such a guarantee, that is the result of expensive left-brain interpreters in its employ working overtime.

 

Our left-brain interpreters love self-affirming gestures. They love serial order and logic spelled out in terms of whereas and now therefore clauses. When consciousness is coherent, it is because a great many neurons are firing in synchrony, which turns our interpreters on and leads them to find out not only what is happening in the mind, but what we should do about it then and there. Nobody gets as fired-up as an NRA attorney at a gun rights rally or court hearing. Eloquent interpretations pour forth—as long as they represent the interests of the donors who profit gloriously from firearm sales.

 

Where would civilization be without attack weapons in the hands of Earth’s children, veterans, drug dealers, criminals, and fearful citizens? When higher, better-funded, more powerful authority speaks, Congress listens. Mrs. Roosevelt is dead. We don’t hear much about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights these days; in 30 articles, it makes no mention of any universal right to bear arms. We do hear a lot from well-funded lobbyists for AIPAC and the NRA, fossil-fuel industries, big agriculture, and similar authorities making sure the world turns to their corporate advantage.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I live in one of the most beautiful stretches of the East Coast, the kind of place people move to when they retire. Here be mountains, lakes, woods, trails, streams, pounding surf, and wildlife. Here I live among eagles, purple finches, beavers, white-tailed deer, coyotes, snowshoe hares, deer mice, porcupines, harbor seals, and a host of other native inhabitants. My drinking water comes from the watershed of Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park, a watershed about as undeveloped as any this side of the Mississippi River. Intuition tells me this is a good place to live.

 

A great many others think so as well. They come from all over—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts—all seeking the promised land of their dreams. They sell their houses in the Land of Away and move to Maine. But then a funny thing happens. They become very sensitive to any sprawl or overdevelopment that might threaten their values and privacy. The feeling is unanimous: Pull up the drawbridge; Let no others trespass on this sacred ground.

 

There you have it—territoriality. I’ve got mine, but you can’t have yours! Not here, not now. No Trespassing signs spring out of the ground; motion detectors rise in every yard. This attachment to home turf is one of the most prominent features of consciousness. It even floods over into the games we play, many of which are territorial contests between those eternal rivals, the Home Team and aliens from Away. Think football, basketball, soccer, Monopoly, backgammon, chess, checkers, and many others. To win is to rule the field, the course, the board—all stand-ins for what really counts—the territory.

 

Robins define their boundaries, singing from the treetops, along with scarlet tanagers, mockingbirds, and every other bird, declaring, “I’ve got mine!” Which translates either as “Come and share it with me” (directed at females of the species), or “I’m warning you, keep away!” (directed at rival males). Coyotes mark their territories, as do wolves, foxes, dogs, cats, otters, and a great many other territorial animals. Including humans. We clean our houses, mow lawns, plant hedges, put up fences, and so on, all marking this one place on Earth as distinctively ours.

 

The whole concept of ownership, the basis of much of our law, is territorial. Our concepts of justice and fairness are based on territory—what’s mine and what’s yours. When we get paid for work we do, that paycheck belongs to us. We stash it in a bank account that is legally ours. Even when we go shopping we are claiming our own. Personal consciousness is at the forefront of such territorial issues. We are always alert to the need to defend what is ours against roving bands of light-fingered hooligans. Even street gangs are territorial. No, street gangs especially are territorial because their members have no real property to call their own; they have the conscious lust or urge to possess real property, but not the wherewithal.

 

Getting married, who does not have the thought, “Now I’ve got mine!” That first baby may arouse a similar feeling. The roots of slavery are much the same: I can’t do this on my own. So other lives are co-opted or taken by force, much as cattle are branded as private property. Many of our so-called human rights center on issues of property or territoriality. Right to life. Right to earn a living. Right to be free. Rights are claims that, when you make them, the state or community will back you up. So states are in the business of implementing and defending the dictates of consciousness. The drive to band together for mutual benefit is powerful magic.

 

When rival claims are made to the same territory, all hell is apt to break loose. It is on the basis of no whim that Palestinians and Israelis are locked in conflict, Palestinian consciousness and justification versus Israeli consciousness and justification. In Iraq, Kurds are fairly settled in the mountainous north, while Shiites and Sunnis have at one another over the issue of territory. These issues will never be resolved satisfactorily until each party holds sway over its own turf.

 

Sovereignty is at the heart of conflicts around the globe. Such conflicts erupt from personal consciousness when individuals act on the basis of their need to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level. As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The only solution is to reduce the human population in each territory to a level that it can provide for sustainably. Otherwise, the territorial struggle will go on. War will go on. Starvation will go on. Neglect and brutality will go on. Injustice will go on.

 

World violence is situational because human consciousness is situational. The battle is built into us. We can sing, “This land is my land, this land is your land,” only when the singers are a small group in a big land. When the land’s capacity to support life is neared, the singing will cease. The drawbridge will be raised, guns purchased, rockets aimed.

 

This is the brink of understanding to which the introspective study of consciousness can lead us. Must lead us if we are to work toward an effective solution. If there are too many of us consuming too many resources at too high a level of technology for too long a span, what are we going to do about the situation? For indeed that is the situation we have created for ourselves. No one did it to us. We are fully responsible. It is too late to blame anyone but ourselves.

 

In the current world situation, singing out “I’ve got mine!” isn’t good enough. Living on the backs of the helpless isn’t good enough. Winning the game of life isn’t good enough. Hogging resources isn’t good enough. Relying on conventional views of human consciousness isn’t good enough.

 

What needs to happen is that we’ve got to become conscious of one another so to release the inherent compassion we are capable of feeling for the tribe beyond our individual selves. The human tribe as one tribe among all tribes on Earth—all equally deserving of a fair run at survival.

 

Can we do it? If we can’t we are lost, indeed. We have no option but to heighten our consciousness and give it a try. We all know the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land:

 

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California, to the New York Island

From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

 

But here’s the final verse:

 

In the squares of the city—In the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office—I see my people

And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’

If this land’s still made for you and me.

 

Now we know that the grumblin’ and wonderin’ was an early sign of the transformation in consciousness that is now so desperately needed. This land isn’t made for you and me, we are made to suit this land. That is what consciousness has to tell us, if only we will look into the matter. Stewardship—of our numbers, of this land, and of our claims to it—is the real issue.

 

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