On a daily basis, our engagements proceed by circular routes with many way-stations, both in our minds and in the world.

I have frequently mentioned several of the dimensions of our situated intelligence in this blog. Our actions are equally complex in progressing through the world in serial fashion from such locations as bedrooms, closets, vanity tables, bathrooms, kitchens, driveways, and cars on our forays and engagements, where we interact with our families, communities, cultures, and nature.

From which we return more-or-less in reverse order to our home base, the place where we dream and restore our powers during sleep in preparation for our next round of excursions and engagement.

Our role as wayfarer is balanced by our role as homebody, the two aspects of our nature complementing each other in different ratios at different stages of our journey. Living with our parents and caretakers while we are young children sets up patterns of expectation, yearning, and engagement that last a lifetime as the result of our minds being shaped when we are very young.

Developing more and more confidence as we grow up, we become increasingly bold in ranging from our home base, until we set up new bases for partnering and rearing children of our own. We make the transition from child to adult only gradually, punctuated by a rapid spurt during adolescence, which equips us with adult bodies steered by unseasoned minds, so that we rush to maturity through a program of trial and error in hope that our volatile interiors will eventually catch up with our bodily facades.

Wayfarers and homebodies in black boxes, that’s what we are to one another, each on an independent course of action guided by perception, perception stirred by previous action.

We speak lightly of getting into bed with one another on intimate terms, but to really get to know someone would require us to get inside the black box shielding his or her mind, and vice versa. Can there be such a thing as a double black box, a black box for two in which we can meet each other pure mind to pure mind?

No, the integrity of our bodies precludes such a possibility. If we take off our clothes, we can snuggle our outer membranes together, but our minds keep their distance.

The best we can do is engage one another on a trusting and intimate course of action by mutual consent. Walking side-by-side holding hands, jointly venturing forth in common endeavor, is about as close as we can come to synchronizing the relative integrities protected by our respective black boxes.

Shared regard and consent—not possession, not dropping all barriers, not going through the motions, not hooking-up—is the essence of love. As wayfarers in black boxes, a consentient and durable commitment to engage side-by-side is the best we can do when it comes to fulfilling the dream of union with another.

Joint engagements run by mutual trust, consent, and coordination are definitely possible; a merging of souls is beyond mortal reach.


Reflection 22: Relationships

November 12, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

On a hike I made on August 16, 1996, I got into relationships. That is, relationships got into me. I met eight groups of hikers along the loop I made on Western Mountain in Acadia National Park. All but one were carrying on lively conversations. The silent exception was a man carrying a toddler papoose-style on his back. The rest were all talking, talking, their tongues working as hard as their legs. I heard them coming along the trail, I heard them going.


What is the difference between hiking in a group and hiking solo? I asked that question then, and—after writing Reflection 21 about each of our consciousnesses going it alone—I ask it more generally today. What is the difference between being alone and being in relationship with another who is also going it alone? How can two atoms in the universe link up and share a higher order of consciousness which transcends their isolation? This is how I eased into that topic in 1996:


Unique events and singularities are almost beyond comprehension. There is nothing we can compare them to. We think in terms of classes of things, categories, repeatable events. A class of one is no class at all. It is something waiting to be grouped with something else—to be made plural, coupled, included as part of a whole. Nothing exists by itself. Relationship is all. All is relationship. Plato labored over the problem of the one and the many, the difference between one thing and more than one. Here is a thing all by itself; it is what it is. Put it with another thing, it becomes party to a relationship, which is something else again. No longer an independent whole by itself, its nature now depends on its connectedness to something beyond itself. Man and wife. Mother and child. Teacher and student. Labor and management.


When singular items become joined, there is a tradeoff from a state of differentiation to one of integration. From being alone to being together. Specific detail is sacrificed for a more general state of unity. When two individuals become linked in their minds as a couple, they exist in a wholly different space than they occupied previously. They may look much the same, talk the same, walk the same, but they do so in companionship with another looker, talker, walker. And this change is not just a matter of appearances. Both parties are changed on the inside so that they actually look upon their respective worlds in new ways. Their consciousness becomes energized, their hormones surge, their identities expand to include another being as an essential part of themselves. In writing up my hike twelve years ago, I said:


In school we learn that 1 + 1 = 2, but that simple formula speaks a mystery the greatest minds do not understand. There is a distance and a tension between individual things that must be included in the notion of plurality. A couple exists in relationship. The relationship is what makes it a couple. Yet the relationship is not part of either one by itself. It is something else. The mystical plus sign is everything. That is where the magic is hidden.

Language, love, and beauty live in the plus sign, the space between partners in relationship, and between pluralities. The plus sign makes room for science, religion, government, and art, which are not disciplines in themselves so much as systems of relationship within society. The plus sign gives ideas a place to grow.


Not only ideas but babies, families, communities, tribes, and nations grow in that plus sign. Clearly, we have evolved as a species to join together in common purpose with others we invite to share our personal space. As hydrogen ions are born to share their being with other ions to form atoms and molecules, we are born with not just a potential but a proclivity for interacting with others who are born with a complementary drive.


In partnering, we fulfill—not the other—but ourselves. Both the urge and the satisfaction to which it leads are parts of our personal makeup. That way we preserve our integrity. Our plus sign fulfills itself. If we give from the heart, in the very same act we are expanded in kind. Which sounds like New Age gibberish, but is how the social dimension of consciousness works. We may feel good about having found our partner, but, too, we approve of ourselves in the relationship we have established. We are fully ourselves the whole time. That way, we do not give ourselves away, and so do not feel diminished. As I wrote in my trail book:


The wonder of hiking with a companion is that both people can enrich their relationship by being together in similar landscapes at the same time. Letting the landscape be the plus sign that unites them, couples can grow in new ways in new places, sharing new experiences, letting their relationship grow beyond what it was before they set out. One of the secrets of sustaining a relationship is to let it grow in new ways. This takes trust that the new ways will not threaten what has been attained, but will add new dimensions to it. . . .

          For people hiking in groups, being there is the secret. Being together in relationship as who they are, where they are. Not as who they were somewhere else; who they are, together, here, right now. One of the plus signs, the elements of relationship, is the location where the relationship comes into being. Relationships don’t exist in a vacuum; they are situated where the participants are as they relate to one another. The setting is part of the relationship. Not in an incidental way, but fundamentally and substantially. Location shapes what happens, becoming part of events as each participant and witness experiences them.


Events express the landscapes where they enter into consciousness. People become aware of their surroundings and what I now call their situations, so becoming partners with trees, plants, birds, water, sky, and other natural elements. The “where” is more than just a place on a map, it is a place to be and to live—a habitat. An address in the universe where people can reach out and be touched. The very situations that shape our personal consciousness at particular moments—those same circumstances suggest ways of being together with others in similar situations.


Though our particular edition of consciousness is ours alone (see Reflection 21), we need not feel locked in solitary confinement. The way out is also included in that same consciousness. We discover such openings once we take responsibility for being who we are as individuals and become comfortable with that individuality as our greatest asset. Then the way to offer ourselves in partnership with others opens before us, as the road to the Emerald City opened before Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. We gather courage, heart, and intelligence together—and off we go.