(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

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

The coherence of consciousness is tended by our left-brain interpreter whose job is to make sense of the data available to it from different parts of the brain. If those data are substantial and add to a piece, the interpreter has an easy job characterizing and making sense of the current situation. If they are spotty or contradictory, it must stretch what it knows in producing a plausible account based on what data is available.

 

Each of us is responsible for making sense of the current situation on his or her own. Therein lies the source of our personal integrity. We are more-or-less attentive, detailed, complete, patient, imaginative, and timely in coming up with our take on what we think is happening in our world. In interpreting a poem, for instance, if we attend to every word and punctuation mark, carefully weigh the emphasis given each detail in the sequence of events, and incorporate them in a narrative of what it all means to us, we have a fair chance of understanding what the poet is trying to convey. If we seize on one phrase as meaningful in the context of our personal experience while playing down the rest, odds are we will do violence to the poet’s craft and intent in overlaying our interests on top of her words.

 

Interpretation is a craft in its own right, and rises to an art when we must chose between rival interpretations supported by substantial evidence. Interpretation involves judgments best acquired through deep reflection and long experience. The integrity of our interpretative abilities is important because it represents our preparedness for dealing with life situations in which health and survival may be at issue. If we can bring all aspects of consciousness to bear on such situations, we improve the likelihood that the outcome will prove successful.

 

All manner of habits and behaviors affect our judgments, interpretations, and integrity. Pain, hunger, distractions, exhaustion, mind-altering drugs, alcohol, anger, lust, mood swings—all detract from the cohesiveness of our mental processes, and the suitability of our actions to any and all situations we are engaged in at the time. Each of us must confront his own demons in a trial of strength and integrity. That is, he must employ every aspect of consciousness in rising to such challenges, or not, as may be the case.

 

Life installs many such gates along our path, some at set milestones all must attain, others as random obstacles we must meet on our own. We either pass through—or our journey stops at one gate or another. Integrity helps us make it through as many gates as our physical and mental powers will allow. The last gate is our undoing; none of us possess integrity sufficient to getting through that one. Which, if we have done our best to learn what every gate has to teach us, is no defeat.

 

The flip side of integrity is respect for others we meet along the way. We recognize how hard they have worked to get this far, so their integrity deserves our highest regard. Like passing ships, we hail each other and sail on. There is a dignity to the process, an appreciation for what it takes to come on the scene, to struggle, to develop some degree of competence, to keep on and ever on.

 

Integrity casts an aura about itself, prompting others to aspire to its level. It sets the standard of what can be achieved—and gone beyond. I remember the day Roger Bannister ran the first under-four-minute mile. It was an accomplishment for humanity (at least in the Western World). It was as significant an event as Charles Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic in his day. The training, determination, endurance required raised the bar of integrity another notch higher.

 

Integrity can be inspiring, even contagious. First one individual achieves it on her own. Then its influence radiates outward to show what can be achieved. First within a family or small group, then into the neighborhood, community, tribe or nation, unto the human population. Mahatma Gandhi set a standard of integrity for all people. Inspired by Thoreau, he in turn inspired Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Martin Luther King. As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.” Integrity expressed on a global scale would set a new standard for every individual, spurring a revolution in cohesive consciousness.

 

Integrity, that is, develops in response to stressful situations. Everyone I know who has it, earned it by surmounting significant crises or obstacles in her path. She had to summon all her conscious resources to get through one time of trial or another, more likely a series of trials. You don’t acquire integrity by going to school, you can’t buy it anywhere, and nobody will simply hand it to you no matter how nice or attractive you are. Integrity has to be earned by pitting your all against a challenge worthy of your will to overcome. People with integrity always bear scars. They get them by doing more than anyone could reasonably expect—giving their utmost when others stop far short rather than surrender what little ease and comfort they might have.

 

At the Pachamama Symposium I attended in April, I led a discussion on personal integrity. The stories people told of their struggles to achieve integrity were highly personal yet equally moving. Going beyond addiction to recovery, disillusionment with friends or community, being oppressed, breaking free from a stifling relationship, seeking reconciliation by confronting the truth—in every instance integrity was achieved through sacrifice and hard work. Each story told of a life improved by summoning unsuspected resources under stress. That is what it takes to bring integrity within reach.

 

The biggest challenge to integrity is facing certain death. Every day brings us closer to having to undergo that trial. Walking away from a car crash, a bullet flying by the ear, a close call in the emergency room—there are many reminders that none of us is immune to death. For every one of us, the end is certain. Ambiguity about what form it will take in our case makes it seem remote because we can’t picture it. But we delude ourselves if we think denial will help us avoid it. The true test of integrity—in the sense of the true proof that it exists—is the stance we take in preparation for death by whatever blow, whenever it comes. Which may be this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now.

 

Facing death puts a special premium on the days that are left compared to those that have been spent. Every morning we wake up has a special quality. How can we make the best use of such a gift? How can we be most generous with gifts of our own? What tasks fall to us because of our unique qualifications? How can we make the most of ourselves by participating in this special day of all days in Earth’s history? How can we best deploy the many dimensions of our consciousness in living purposefully and deliberately?

 

Whatever answers we give to such questions will be a measure of our integrity. Of our conscious being at this given time in this place. We have earned the right to do anything we want. What will it be on this day? We can decide about tomorrow when we wake up, assuming we do.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Stop in your tracks and watch those around you striding purposefully about their business. It always amazes me how driven we have become, how earnestly we push on without glancing right or left. We drive the kids to school, to violin practice, to soccer, to ballet, to rehearsals. And then pick them up and drive home. Busyness is our business, the exact opposite of the broad margin Thoreau sought around his life.

 

Having read most of his writings, including the Journals, I have long admired Thoreau for the evident integrity backing up every word. Whatever he did, he did wholeheartedly, his own way. Uniqueness and integrity go together because no two of us are the same. But being busy cuts through our uniqueness, as if routines were more important than personal passions and judgments. What would happen if we stopped and smelled the flowers along the way? We’d be late, and everybody knows it is a sin to be late. Bosses know it, teachers know it, sergeants know it, theatergoers know it, entire corporate hierarchies know it. Lateness can lower your grade, your pay, your IQ, and probably your sex drive.

 

Adopting cultural mores and routines means you have donated part of your brain to your culture for the sake of being accepted. That’s a tough bargain because you are no longer fully yourself. You’ve become a political animal, living part of your life for the effect it might have on others. Wanting to please is one thing, doing it for personal gain is another. Selling your personal integrity is a form of prostitution (from Latin prostituere, expose publically, offer for sale). In our culture, it is an obvious good to watch TV, invest, buy, patronize advisers, consume, and generally go along with the crowd. How do we know? Because that’s the gist of many of the messages beamed at us in modern life.

 

But to take a stand against the onslaught takes integrity—being whole, entire, intact, untouched, or undamaged. Thoreau had that quality, as did Emerson and Walt Whitman. They were their own men, out to be true, not to please. Giving them the biting edge of independent thought, a quality shared with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to name but three exemplars from each sex.

 

The competitiveness of our culture is meant to fracture the integrity of those who oppose it. Backed by wealth and the power of law, corporations will do their best to beat you into a pose of submission, to have you bend at the knees, throw up your hands and cry, “Enough, I’ll go along!” Dominance is claimed to be a synonym for masculinity, submission for femininity—obvious myths in a world requiring both men and women to be strong to survive. But for political and commercial purposes, the claim has a certain weight among those who please by doing what they’re told.

 

For myself, I believe the function of consciousness is to teach us integrity so that whether male or female, we can be wholly ourselves. In the Mind page at the head of this blog, I list various aspects of consciousness that might bear in varying combinations upon any given situation in awareness. These include: attention, feelings, various kinds of memories, motivation, sensory and bodily phenomena, understanding, imagination, intuition, judgment, planning, expectancy, and action (including language).

 

Integrity, to me, means these various aspects complement one another in contributing to any given episode of personal consciousness. They add to a whole greater than their individual shares taken separately. When we get it together, it feels good because it’s all of a piece. When our minds are at sixes and sevens, we know what that feels like—we can’t concentrate on action because we aren’t ready yet to decide what to do. But when the parts work in synchrony with one another, we are ready to make our move without hesitation.

 

Integrity is a sign that the famous binding problem has been solved in a given instance of consciousness. The problem “arises from the brain’s architecture, in which the outside world is represented by nervous activity in a hundred or more distinct regions” (Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness, p. 167). Yet consciousness creates the illusion that the mind is of one piece. Which is what integrity feels like.

 

My finest moments are those in which I am of one mind—not because my thought is so simple—but precisely because it is hard-won from so many sources yet presents itself as a self-made unity. Perhaps contributions from various brain assemblies are in synchrony with one another, which is what it feels like to me. Everything adds up without argument or discord, freeing my actions to be skillful, passionate, and wholehearted. I have served on a great many committees, so I know what it feels like to rub different parts smooth in order to come up with a compromise, always with a feeling of “it’s the best we can do.”

 

Today, a colleague sent an e-mail concerning the possibility of minds meeting in agreement when coming from different perspectives, I sent back this response:

 

Regarding two minds getting together. I agree with you, part way, but come up against the roadblock of personal integrity. I feel I am finally in a situation where much of my consciousness works cooperatively so that I feel wholly integrated as I write. I treasure that feeling because it has been so rare in my life. I threw out my TV in 1986 because it was such a distraction. I defend my turf, now living practically as a hermit (except for weekends). Now that I’ve got myself more or less together, I don’t want to give that up. It is exciting to think of meeting someone concerned with the same issues on the same level—but daunting, too. At least my mistakes are my own. My belief [is] that one life contains all the stimulation required in order to do good work and make a contribution. Am I wrong? Probably. But it feels great doing what I can with what I have. Still, I’m willing to consider—if not fully explore—the options. What happens if my well runs dry? That’s when I’d need help. So far, it hasn’t happened. In the meantime, I pick and choose in the light of my personal judgment. So keep writing and being your own person. Integrity, once achieved, is a priceless possession.

 

Yes, dialogue is possible between persons of integrity. I find it a waste of time between those whose opinions are threatened by dissent because they aren’t fully supported by every aspect of consciousness. That to me seems to be the state in which most of us conduct our everyday affairs. We generally wing it, doing the best we can under the circumstances, often unfavorable.

 

Which is why we play so many games. Governed by rules, they impose integrity upon us from the outside, and by simplifying the number of options we have in making legal moves. If we cheat, it’s too much like work to be fun anymore.

 

Society places so many pressures upon us to do this and do that, it’s a wonder we ever find quiet time for getting ourselves together. I know women who write poetry at the kitchen table during the fifteen minutes the kids take their afternoon nap. Every four days that adds to an hour of integrity, twenty-four hours of integrity every 96 days—almost four days of integrity a year. That kind of serial project may be the best we can manage during our working, childrearing years. In the interests of full disclosure, I am technically retired, but I’ve never been busier in my life. The difference is I do what I choose to do, not what I am assigned. The tradeoff is I’m not always informed about many of the things that other people talk about and seem to take seriously.

 

The juncture (we now say interface) between people of integrity is always the hard part. What good is integrity if you keep it to yourself? Which is the situation my colleague was asking about in his e-mail. Can integrities be shared so they add to more than the sum of their parts? I gotta believe. When we all achieve integrity in our consciousness, then we will act on the best advice obtainable internally and socially, and the world is bound to be a better place.

 

For now, I offer integrity as something to strive for. After that, we’ll have the dialogue that will save the world. Hopefully, some are having that discussion already, so we’re not as far behind as the nightly news would suggest.

 

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