So, how does it happen, this mental life of ours?

From our point of view, we are born to engage as best we can  the local precinct of whatever universe we find ourselves in. Basically, elaborate neural networks in our brains offer hospitality to a wide variety of signals sparked by whatever part of that universe is within reach of our senses. In different proportions, those signals shape the dimensions of our situated intelligence every instant of our lives, serving as our subjective (and distorted) version of the world. Our job is to interpret as best we can that fleeting mix of signals, and to respond more-or-less appropriately. Voilà, our streaming mental life.

Let us stop willing the mind not to exist because it defies the ideology in which we have been schooled.  And, too, stop assuming that the world we individually entertain is the one and only real world. Let’s get with evolution’s program for our species of primate. The program that plants the presumed order of the universe so firmly in our minds, when all we have to go on is the blur our senses present to us. We are the most willful species imaginable. It is time to admit it so we can transcend our past errors and fulfill the promise we are born to.

Rip off the blinders of our self-serving orthodoxies and join the company of universal beings we might become if we stop claiming to be the one people chosen (by ourselves) above all others. That claim is proof of the distortions that come with our subjective versions of the world.

What I am asking is that we accept the fact that we know only the flickering impressions on the inner walls of the dark caves we inhabit throughout life. That we live in subjective confinement within our minds. That our powers are puny in comparison to the majesty of the stars from which the atoms in our bodies have been created and donated to the universe.

If we can update our thinking and cherished beliefs, then we might at last transcend the narrow thread of history we have come to believe in as if it were true, go beyond our previous attainments, and so become beings worthy of the planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe that have hosted us all along—and of which we are integral parts.

Nothing matters more than the wellbeing of the planet we live on in the vast chill of space. We know that now. It is past time to act on that certainty. Burning fossil fuels is a luxurious habit, like smoking cigarettes, an evil (in the sense of unhealthy) habit. Crowding the planet with our ways of doing things is not our destiny if we are to survive.

If we don’t naturalize ourselves and become first-and-foremost citizens of the Earth, then our glorious achievements cumulatively amount to our own demise.

How ironic is that? All because we claim to take as real the world as we find it, while in the meantime fabricating a world of our own making to suit ourselves from inside the black boxes we truly inhabit.

It is past time to bring our actions into compliance with the living order of nature, not our self-serving fantasies as cast upon the waters of our beliefs.

 

 

 

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(Copyright © 2010)

In certain situations, each of us acts as if his personal views were absolute truth, not mortal opinion. On such occasions, we pass ourselves off as more certain than our life experiences warrant. But we plunge ahead on the basis of unsupportable enthusiasms nonetheless. What we mean by “I know this for a fact” is “Let me tell you what I think,” as if truth were in the telling itself. Which is exactly the impression we want to give. The more we doubt, the louder we spout our views. If we see no humor in doing so, we fail to recognize our own zealotry.

It is easy to see pride in others, but not ourselves because it is none other than our selves who gauge the earnestness of our assertions. If we didn’t make such judgments, we wouldn’t be able to act. The actor must feel he is standing on bedrock and not a cloud (think of the skywriting pilot whose jottings are wisps of smoke) to assert anything. He must act as if he were right or not act at all. Imagine a president making a State of the Union Address, modestly declaring, “Well, folks, I kinda’, sorta’ think maybe this might be the pickle we’re in.” Congress would not only shout him down, they’d run for the door. The nation would go into cardiac arrest.

Sacred cows are sacred cows because they give us an excuse to insert at least some sense of order in our lives. Tradition is better than . . . well, nothing. Take Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits, for example. In Darwinian circles, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck has been an inside joke for 150 years. Evolution is run at a snail’s pace by selection for the rare mutation that gives a particular genotype a better chance to reproduce, spread, and survive than another. Everyone who is anyone knows that. But the brand-new field of epigenetics recognizes that our genes are influenced by other factors (besides mutations) that affect conditions under which real, live babies are conceived in real time and real places, and subsequently grow to sexual maturity. Factors like diet, for instance, sanitation, maternal anxiety, smoking, or disease. This is hot stuff—making a lot of smart people reevaluate the conditions under which they have any right to claim they are as smart as they claim. It’s back to the drawing board for the staunchest of Darwinians.

Orthodoxy is a plague upon us, like smoking cigarettes or overeating. It chokes the mind, forcing it to suck in the same stale thoughts over and over again, desiccating consciousness, making it dry and listless. Taking shelter behind accepted opinion makes us feel safe, or agreeable to the powers that be who have control of our lives. It puts us on the “right” side of the issues that drive us apart, such as abortion, religious practice and dogma, social conventions, fads or anti-fads, displays of allegiance, and so on. We acquire many of our views before we are old enough to be exposed to alternatives, so they become set in our brains. We miss the point that if we’d been born in a different household or culture, we might be the very person we rail against today. Inconceivable! Impossible! Yet a sure sign we rely on traditional pathways burned into our brains when we were young and naive.

Where there is a divide between peoples, there are orthodoxies on either hand. Rich/poor, old/young/ male/female, red/blue, black/white, straight/gay, them/us, out/in, familiar/strange. Stereotypes are rigid kinds of categorizations—seen one, seen ‘em all. Which help us think we know more than we do, be bigger and wiser than we are—immediately, with very little effort. How sad that we shun, beat up, or kill one another simply because of the categories we carelessly project onto those who differ from ourselves. In the saying, there is safety in numbers, “numbers” suggests like-thinking others, the known world, as it were. Unknown others are expendable. And if you make yourself an agent of that world, you become a hero in its eyes, or even a martyr if you sacrifice yourself for the common cause.

These dramas take place in our minds, our acts only reflecting the state of our ossified brains as education, indoctrination, training, and belief have made them rigid. As we are led to categorize others, so do we follow those who lead us as if in a dream. And for all we can tell, that dream is real. We are overtaken by missionary zeal and self-righteousness. Instead of flub-dubbing around, we know what we are doing at last. All is perfectly clear. There are only true believers and infidels, Catholics and protestants, Aryans and Jews, Jews and Arabs, Pashtuns and Indians, Turks and Greeks, Home and Away, Them and Us. We cling to our schisms in spite of all evidence that things aren’t that simple, that the facts point to each person being unique, and for that reason deserving of respect as a complement to ourselves, who are but seeds blowing in the wind.

In the abstract, we know all this, and claim to believe it. But in practice we invariably excuse our own actions as the only course open to us. I couldn’t help it; she asked for it; he made me do it. Overwhelmed by circumstances, we do what we do. But it isn’t world circumstances, it’s the circumstances in our minds that drive us. It is consciousness that pulls the trigger, thrusts the sword, throws the grenade—because that’s how we’ve been trained. Be a man, not a weakling. Stand up for your beliefs. Show ‘em they can’t mess with us. Throw the rock; give the finger; hit them before they hit you. Shock and awe, that’s the stuff. Catch ‘em off-guard. You’re in the right; if they complain, it’s because they’re prejudiced. Infidels!

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read this week is David Margolick’s piece, “The Return of the Neocons,” in Newsweek (Feb. 1). He points out the differences between them, yet what unites their views is their orthodoxy in being outsiders who have infiltrated the system, so to a man they see themselves as performing heroic service. Eternal underdogs, double agents, they thrive in their culture of orthodoxy in which one side can do no wrong, the other no right. They make defensiveness on behalf of their cause a primal virtue requiring no justification.

As historians note, the impulses the neocons represent—the Manichaean world view, the missionary zeal, the near-jingoistic view of America, the can-do spirit and impatience with nuance—are as old as the country itself. . . . [They hold] that the United States occupies a higher moral plane than any other nation, and should act accordingly. . . . [favoring] a muscular, aggressive foreign policy, anticipating and preempting problems worldwide (by military means if necessary), unencumbered by corrupt or pusillanimous international organizations like the United Nations (pages 34-35).

Margolick paints the neocons as an ad hoc cadre of Israeli sympathesizers within the Republican Party, doing their best to steer American policy abroad without drawing attention to themselves as un-elected officials pushing a stealth agenda of their own. In that sense, they serve as lobbyists without having to bother with credentials—missionaries doing God’s work in the guise of laymen without common cause.

Life is a test to see whether our habitual characterizations—the way we see the world—stand up or not. As the bow is drawn, so flies the arrow; whether it hits the target or not is almost irrelevant. Being true to hardened beliefs takes precedence over getting it right. That is, posturing is all, accomplishment not worth considering. Such is a good portion of consciousness, the timed-release of routines stored from childhood. Come what may, the self stands true to the circumstances that prevailed during its earliest formation. Events are merely the fuels that feed the flames within to keep us moving ahead—that is, familiar to ourselves, no matter what. Orthodoxy allows us to recognize ourselves in changing times because we strike the same pose in each situation as it arises. Self-preservation is the name of that game, the primary business of mental life. Reacting to the strange as if it were perfectly familiar, we see ourselves as masters of every occasion. The world may turn, but we refuse to turn with it. That is the essence of dogma, fundamentalism, and ideology. No thinking is required because every idea is prepackaged for ready consumption.

Here there is a close connection between categorization, the storylines we live out, and the situations we get ourselves into again and again. Michael Gazzaniga finds an interpretive module in the lift side of the brain which makes sense of ongoing events no matter how senseless they seem. Who is this interpreter? None other than our self of old, all the way back to our days of language acquisition. What did we know then? How critical were we in applying our judgment? Not much; not very. Yet we are still the same creature, always a little off base, trying to understand what’s going on. So we hazard a guess in keeping with who we were then. Creativity is painful because it means moving away from who we once were into the uncharted territory of the now. Staying sane in novel situations is best done by remaining the same as we were then. We all mimic the Pope in believing in our personal infallibility. He is the eternal child, young at heart, supposedly wise as the hills of Rome in always coming up with a ready answer. A great gig if you can pull it off with a straight face.

I see signs of this back-tugging force all around me. The old ways were better because we were comfortable then and knew whose child we were, while today’s world is fearsome and dangerous, and we’re not sure how we fit in. Fundamentalists read from that script every day of their lives. We survived childhood; the message is clear: More childhood is better. Long live the child within. What worked then is a good bet for what might work now. Formative episodes of experience at a young age set the course of a lifetime.

In my own case, I am definitely the same kid I was at age ten when I was chiseling trilobites out of the damp, black walls of gullies in Hamilton, New York. The thrill of those discoveries is still with me, translated into the idiom of Taunton Bay, Maine. Tracking horseshoe crabs at the northern edge of their range, as I did from 2003 to 2005, put me on the leading edge of my personal curiosity and wonder. Studying the antics of herons, eagles, loons, harbor seals, and wildlife in general, I reach from the depths of my personal history and project that old, familiar feeling of adventure onto the world of today. What conservationists protect may not be the Earth itself so much as their longing to restore Earth as they knew it.

When I was six or seven, my father got a truckload of pebbles to firm up the driveway. I was in the garage, idly playing with a hammer. I placed one of the smooth pebbles on a cinderblock and gave it a sharp tap. Amid the smell of rock dust, the stone split neatly apart, revealing a fossil shell sharply sculpted in high relief. Not sculpted, molded; it was the creature itself turned to stone. Why I picked just that pebble, and hit it just as I did, I’ll never understand. But there it was, a major discovery of my dawning life. Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

As a kid, I loved the month of March when snow on the hills around Hamilton melted into rivulets rushing for the valleys below. I’ve told this story before, but I’ll replay it again because it shows how orthodox I am at the core of my being. I launched boats made of bark and twigs into the flow, and ran with them as they coursed toward the valley. I built dams by pushing rows of twigs into the mud at various angles to the flood, learning about hydrodynamics experientially, not conceptually. The only notes I took were recorded in the mud on my knees, and the sopping pants I wore home. That early learning is with me today as I row across the salty currents of Taunton Bay on an incoming tide. I can visualize the forces acting on my little boat, and choose my heading accordingly.

I worry a good deal about the state of childhood education as we’ve formalized it today. We’ve taken muddy pants out of the curriculum and replaced them with the concept of muddy pants. That way we stay clean and acceptable to our care givers, who seem not to know that concepts gained through physical experience driven by personal motivation outlast the abstractions foist on us by others. Horseshoe crabs and trilobite fossils are existentially real to me because I have a history of hands-on experience with them. Learning about them through books, they start out as ideas in the mind. That is, as in Monopoly, they go straight to jail (memory) without passing go (the senses), creating a kind of half-baked experience wholly dependent on the cards we draw from the stack, cards telling us what we are to do in the world. If The Cat in the Hat, say, or the Lorax, becomes a stock character in my orthodox beliefs—along with mermaids, angels, and unicorns—I will swear to the collective existence of such creatures based on first-hand experience, not suspecting how fanciful my bookish acquaintance really is. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause. But a Santa in the mind is not the same as the “Santa” who eats cookies left on a plate by the fireplace.

In each instance, behavior justified on the basis of orthodoxy, belief, or ideology is always of questionable authority. Even in John Weir’s percept language, the concept of self is of doubtful origin, so does not necessarily represent the real “me,” if there can be such a thing. That is to say, even the self is a construct or characterization, and as such, is a product of complex mental operations and influences. Because experience comes with a valence either positive or negative, good or bad (for me), the first-person singular “I” is more apt to be the good guy than the bad guy. As George W. Bush—and the male animal in general—amply illustrate, it is often hard to acknowledge errors of personal categorization and judgment. Self-criticism is an oxymoron because the self makes the rules. If we dutifully rock back and forth memorizing the Qur’an as children, then truth is on our lips ever after. We become cocky in our beliefs because all doubt and uncertainty are effectively suppressed. We live out our lives as stock characters in a drama fulfilling the dreams of an author living in another time and another place. Because that author dwells within us, not before us, we do not see it directing our actions ever after.

Consciousness by the book—orthodox consciousness—makes us commit crazy (inappropriate) acts while feeling perfectly sane and rational. On cue, we become that innocent child again, wobbling about and asserting ourselves like so many mechanical toys driven by coiled springs. Which I offer as an apt depiction of the Republican phalanx in Congress lock-stepping the party line, bent on destroying our elected system of government from within. And of the neocon cell in Washington awaiting another golden opportunity such as the felling of the Twin Towers to further its covert agenda for proper deployment of America’s might in securing Israel’s toehold in what used to be called Palestine.

And me, I’m just here doing my thing—digging trilobites from gully walls. Characterizing the world around me in terms I learned through early engagements with my environment. Writing a blog is like looking for fossils—I never know what I’ll find. I have a word or a hunch or an idea to begin with, and see where it leads me. Discovery is the issue, coming up with something to fill the gaps in my understanding. That’s my agenda, more-or-less focused on my personal consciousness, which is the vehicle I use in these serial reflections. I can’t help myself; I am a creature of my own making, clinging to the only childhood I know inside-out because I lived it with my very own brain, which dutifully took note of what was happening along the way, and established the original connections that keep reinforcing themselves through everyday use. In being me, I am fulfilling the dream of the child who set the course of my life without knowing that’s what he was doing at the time.

So, I submit, are we all driven by the fundamentalist within because we have no comparable exemplar to follow. Claiming to be reasonable and rational, yet staunchly orthodox at the core, it is wrenching to discover the child we were still rules the day. The art of the possible, as politics is sometimes characterized, inevitably stands against the art of the ideal, the way things should be if orthodoxy had its way. Like you, I could have been the littlest neocon, jahadi, or zionist, but that wasn’t to be. The circumstances of my birth were otherwise. I was the son of a man whose mother’s giving birth to her first child was her last act on Earth. He was baptized at graveside during her burial. He never knew her, his own mother. Because he was remote and inaccessible, I never knew him, my father. Like him, I am a project-oriented, free-thinking loner, more by social inheritance than by choice. Will my sons ever know me? Perhaps, at a distance, if they follow this blog.

UNIFORM

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Given that I ended my last post on the note we may not wake up tomorrow, I will continue in that vein to see if I can’t discover some more satisfactory resolution.

 

Speaking of mortality, the day I wrote this post, I read the scariest article I have ever read, Jeff Sharlet’s “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military,” in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. Sharlet addresses a different kind of integrity than I have presented in my last two reflections, a single-minded adherence to dogma derived from self-serving interpretation of religious scripture among members of the military.

 

Even as the U.S. conducts its so-called war on terror, many of its fighters and their leaders are finding strength in deviant religious doctrine by which Christian warriors will triumph against not only Islamic infidels but non-extremist Americans as well. We are breeding the very enemy within our ranks while doing battle in the arid lands of the Middle East. First we armed the mujahideen as our proxy warriors against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan; now we are training an army of religious extremists within our own forces. At present, their guns are aimed at Islamic fundamentalists, but their ideology is aimed straight at the heart of America’s Christian fundamentalists and a mythic government worthy of their ideals. I see a civil war brewing in our midst, pitting armed extremists—largely whites from the South serving as an army of God—against their more liberal brethren in the North and Far West.

 

Sharlet backs up his thesis by giving name and rank of many of his informants. One, “who asked that he not be named so as not to compromise his close connection to today’s top officers,” provided this view:

 

Although the military was integrated before much of the United States, he points out, it almost split along racial lines, particularly in the last days of Vietnam. If the military was to rebuild itself, the Southern white men at the heart of its warrior culture had to come to an understanding of themselves based on something other than skin color. Many, says the senator, turned toward religion, particularly fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. . . . “They replaced race with religion,” says the senator. “The principle remains the same—an identity built on being separate from a society viewed as weak and corrupt.”

 

Lieutenant Colonel Bob Young speaks for many in the military. Sharlet quotes him as saying “Really, arguably, the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It’s the easiest place in America to be a Christian.” Christian, that is, with savage twists of hatred, superiority, and self-righteousness mixed in. This new military is more interested in defending its ideological interpretations of scripture than in defending the American people, many of whom it covertly despises.

 

Here is the heart of the problem humanity faces in trying to come to grips with its errant ways. Our left-brain interpreters are so good at synthesizing the many messages they receive from all quarters of the brain, it’s hard not to be swayed by them. But when interpreters are employed defensively in the interest of received dogma, relying largely on ideology approved by external agencies and institutions more than firsthand conscious experience, then the interpreter’s first duty is to cast a critical eye on the beliefs it is passing off as its own.

 

Anything written must be regarded with particular scrutiny because words can lie so convincingly. Scripture in particular—whether written 2,710, 1,955, or 1,377 years ago by Jewish, Christian, or Islamic hands in Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic—must be regarded as suspect because of the gulf between what was understood then to be true in the idiom of that time and what we understand in the light of today. It is particularly dangerous to apply ancient words to modern situations as if ancient and modern people were the same. We take Plato and Aristotle with a grain of salt; we must treat religious accounts the same way. Even if we enjoy reading them, we must keep in mind that was then, this is now. The situations in which those words arose no longer exist. When translated into modern languages, even though we want to believe them, our judgment must point out that ancient truths have a shelf life of a single generation, and that even 100 years after they were written, the context that provided their meaning had been largely forgotten.

 

For example, in winter 1986-1987, I sat down and read through the Oxford Study Edition of The New English Bible (Oxford University Press, 1976). I read it as literature—the word of lower-case men—not the word of upper-case God. In 1 Corinthians, I marked these passages as being of interest:

 

If the dead are never raised to life, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (15.32).

 

But, you may ask, how are the dead raised? In what kind of body? How foolish! The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died; and what you sow is not the body that shall be, but a naked grain, perhaps of wheat, or of some other kind; and God clothes it with the body of his choice, each seed with its own particular body (15.35-38). . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body (15.42-44). . . . What I mean, my brothers, is this: flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, and the perishable cannot possess immortality. Listen! I will unfold a mystery: we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise immortal, and we shall be changed. This perishable being must be clothed with the imperishable, and what is mortal must be clothed with immortality. And when our mortality has been clothed with immortality, then the saying of Scripture will come true: ‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’ (15.50-55).

 

Very powerful writing, as much of Paul is. He presents his argument in orderly fashion, develops it by analogy, then draws his conclusion. He is a practiced rhetorician. That is, he skillfully uses words to make his points. But this is ancient persuasion, not truth. 

 

His topic is resurrection as a solution to the problem of death. He reasons by analogy from the plant world to the human, but within the understanding of his time (Corinthians is dated to the mid-50s BCE) which understood little about genetics or the germination of seeds. Paul presents planting seeds in the ground as analogous to burying the dead, or to death itself. Since the resulting sprout seemed to bear no resemblance to the seed, some agency must have been responsible for giving the seed a new garment or new body. By leap of faith, the only agent capable of making such a switch would be God, the ultimate agency for making good things happen beyond the limits of human understanding. (It would have been Satan, the anti-God concept, that made bad things happen.)

 

Getting to his point—the resurrection of the dead—Paul leaps from seeds to animal bodies, which can only achieve a spiritual existence after death through intervention by the same agency. In his day when distinctions were less closely drawn, that might have followed as a logical conclusion, but it now comes across very much like hand-waving by his left-brain interpreter. It is God’s will; Satan made me do it. Which are not explanations at all but fabulous accounts of everyday wonders.

 

Then Paul hits his emotional stride and is on-message with his interpreter. We are not going to die after all. “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call”—this is the language of fairy-tale, not truth. No matter how much we want to believe, we must look around for the man at the levers behind the curtain. If judgment does not serve us now, we are lost. “‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’” On whose authority might that be? Paul’s very own. That is, the authority of his left-brain interpreter. This is the man who took a hand in the stoning of St. Stephen, who had an episode on the road to Damascus, who converted from Judaism to become a follower of Christ. When traditional Jewish law failed him, he turned to love. There was incredible stress in his life during a time of great upheaval at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Bishop John Shelby Spong makes a case for Paul being gay long before it would have been acceptable: “It was, I believe, a repressed gay man named Paul of Tarsus who had been taught by his religion and his society to hate what he knew he was, who ultimately gave to the Christian faith its concept of grace, as the undeserved, unmerited love of God found in Christ Jesus” (Preface, The Letters of Paul, page xxxix).

 

And almost two thousand years later, we are to accept the word of this man so desperate for acceptance on the sensitive subject of life after death? I say we take it at face value, warts and all, and let it go at that. We are fortunate to have dictation from this able man’s left-brain interpreter extant for our examination. It is now up to us to conduct a suitably rigorous examination. If our left-brain interpreters leap to the conclusion that Paul was right because the book his words are written in would not lie to us, so grant them safe conduct across the intervening span of years to this very day, well, I say we are not only extremely needy but gullible to boot.

 

To put massive firepower in the hands of men who take the Bible as literal truth is the height of foolishness and misplaced trust. Men who kill for a living harden their interpreters against any and all criticism. They do it to protect themselves, but in the process may well be putting the rest of us at risk. This is exactly the kind of movement we must guard against. On the lookout for swarthy terrorists, who among us would suspect our own troops, the guys we support with all those yellow ribbons and bumper stickers?

 

I have a whole page of jottings about what I intended to cover in this post, and haven’t gotten to any of them. For today, I will leave it at that.

 

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