The brain is a facilitator. It enables perception, meaning, judgment, and action as an ongoing flow of engagement. Its genius is in guiding selection of what we pay attention to, evaluate in comparison to other options (that is, judge), and subsequently act upon.

When a routine is effective, the brain makes it easy for us to do more of the same. We come to think in terms of routines in our repertory so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. The essence of consciousness is in turning new problems into effective routines we can count on when one such problem comes up again.

Speech is a tremendous saver of brain space, whenever possible substituting fine muscle movements of jaw, tongue, and lips in place of gross movements of trunk and limbs. Language is a code for reducing the brain space we need to get by with, using a limited set of words over and over again in new contexts, always with new shades of meaning.

Which is what Peter Mark Roget did in producing his Thesaurus. And Plato did in pondering the parallels between the stars in their heaven and the activities of people on Earth below. He was working on that question for the rest of us, and did his best to come up with a workable understanding.

The Timaeus is a record of the trouble Plato went to on our behalf. As every World Series game is a record of the skill and effort players on each team expend on behalf of their fans in particular, and all fans of stellar performances beyond them. The same is true for Olympic athletes. And outstanding thinkers and doers of all kinds.

Individual minds matter. Consciousness matters. Brains matter. Engagements matter. Families matter. Communities, cultures, and nature matter. All as aspects of a planet that matters in a solar system that matters in a galaxy that matters in a cosmos that matters. Not to fulfill a set of universal laws, but to make an effective response to conditions and situations that come up and need to be dealt with.

None of these levels of interaction and engagement are governed by rules or laws. Each is determined by the energy available and forces bearing on fraught situations of every size and nature throughout the whole system.

We are all parts of that system: particles, nuclei, atoms, molecules, bases, chromosomes, amino acids, proteins, cell walls, plasma, organelles, organs, organ systems, organisms, species, genera, families, orders, classes, phyla, kingdoms, life, planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, and whatever lies beyond.

We can do nothing but respond to the situations and conditions that put pressure upon us in every ways from every direction with whatever energy is available. We strive to do the best we can under those conditions in those situations.

And what we do best is engage the world around us on as many levels as we can manage because that is what we have evolved to do because we don’t have a choice. Either we make it or we don’t. The system will go on without us.

We are the leading edge of a spreading and evolving wave of energy that spurs us to be who we are in our own time and do what we find it best to do. That is our job; our only job. To be good citizens of the precinct of the universe we find ourselves in at the time—on the playing field, in the library, out at night ogling the stars in their sky.

So, yes, minds, brains, bodies, engagements—all matter, whether we understand them or not. The particular piece of the puzzle I have claimed for myself is nothing less than the challenge of understanding my own mind as well as I can.

This blog is the best I can do. It is my performance in the last play of the last game of the World Series for mindfarers. There will be Series after this one, with fresher farers as players.

Having come this far, I can’t add anything to this discussion with myself that I haven’t said several times over. I will move on to whatever conclusions I can take from my journey this far.

(Copyright © 2010)

Speaking of writers who have influenced my life, as I did in my last post (Reflection 168: Edelman on Consciousness), I woke up this morning thinking of my debt to Jerome Bruner who, twenty-eight years ago, had a lasting influence on my writing and conscious mind. I offer the following sample of something I wrote then in which Bruner’s ideas helped me weave strands developing in my personal consciousness into a coherent pattern. I see now that the very words I wrote are a symbolic example of what Bruner was trying to convey.

Since I’m quoting myself, I’ll skip the block quotes I generally use to signify words spoken or written by others. The following is taken from the last chapter of Metaphor to Mythology by S. Perrin, 1982, printed by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983. Yes, the language comes from that other planet I lived on at the time.

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As Jerome Bruner states, “the mythologically instructed community provides its members with a library of scripts upon which the individual may judge the internal drama of his multiple identities” (see note (1) below), while, at the same time, certain heroic individuals themselves can contribute their respective scripts to the communal library. In this way the rich variety of personal heritages present within a community can achieve a symbolic (gestural, dramatic) kind of unity that lends support to belief in a common [mythology]. If different members of a community enact similar gestures on similar occasions, is it not safe to conclude that their intentions are also the same? It is the function of our mythologies to turn that question into an affirmation so that, in spite of our individual episodes of disillusionment and ineffective communication, we can find a general agreement between our own gestures as meant and the gestures we encounter in our community as performances underwritten by a supposedly similar set of meanings. Thus do we assent to a common mythology as a set of possibilities for self-realization in which we are able to recognize not only our own heritage of attained identities, but (on the basis of gestures we have never performed) the promise of other identities we have yet to fulfill. We are completed by our mythologies, for in them we find the complement to our own participation, finding innocence where we contribute gestures informed by competence, and competence where we volunteer our innocence. The outcome is that we do not picture ourselves as trapped within the limitations established by our heritage, nor restricted to those possibilities for being which we are capable of realizing right now, but as open to a future level of attainment that surpasses either so that we have a possibility of becoming more than we have been, more than we are.

In other words, by completing our being and our heritage of meaning, a mythology beckons to us as a revelation of possibilities for becoming, a promise of enrichment or of growth, because it holds out to us a limitless series of gestures which we ourselves have never performed, but which we believe ourselves capable of performing with appropriate (but as yet unknown) intentions. That hope, and that challenge, is the essential gift of community, the gift of becoming more than our heritage suggests, more than we presently are, allowing us to believe that we are not imprisoned within the confines of the past, nor trapped by the few dimensions of being we are able to appreciate right now, but are capable of fulfilling a greater destiny than we can even understand. Community does not gives us ourselves, but it holds out the promise of our own self-transcendence by completing our competence and our innocence with the suggestion of other competences and other degrees of innocence than we at present realize. Even in a face-to-face encounter with another, we each become aware of other possibilities for being and meaning as intimated by our exchange of gestures, and we serve to complete one another’s limited range of experience so that together we form a community of expanded possibility, even though we contribute to—and draw from—those possibilities in different ways.

If . . . we look at social reality as being fundamentally symbolic, there is no guarantee that any two individuals will regard an exchange of symbolic gestures from a single perspective, according to the same authority, or with identical degrees of conviction. In fact, given all evidence for our differences, it can never be assumed that agreement upon certain gestures as “symbolic” carries any certainty of agreement among the meanings to which they might refer within our separate streams of experience. For though we may come together in community, we come as particular individuals, not as some statistically-leveled “common man” who embodies the stereotyped ideals of the abstract whole. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

In his life-form the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man. He is limited either as male or as female; at any given period of his life he is again limited as child, youth, mature adult, or ancient; furthermore, in his life role he is necessarily specialized as craftsman, trades-man, servant, or thief, priest, leader, wife, nun, or harlot; he cannot be all. Hence the totality—the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can be only an organ (2).

The synchronized exchange of gestures, then, allows us to insert ourselves into the mythic text of our community by assuming the role of specialized parts or organs at one [pole of an interactive exchange] that loops between our concrete acts and the communal tradition into which they are received as meaningfully intended symbols in apparent conformity with the accepted grammar of our shared linguistic expectations.

In verbal exchange every sentence is a complex series of gestures (involving relations of pitch, stress, juncture, and phonetic units) as the existential performance of a set of mutually embedded meanings spread across a range of abstract levels (from the ostensively present and concrete to the referentially conceptual and abstract), a series of gestures themselves embedded in a context of other (situational, verbal, and nonverbal) gestures subject to construal by each respective participant. The relation between possible gestures and possible situations is dictated by the traditional grammar of the community within which the dialogue is taking place, so that language is not only a medium of communal mythology, but is itself an aspect of that mythology. Language is something in which we believe and to which we must commit ourselves—at the same time we commit our meanings to it. It is possible only insofar as it represents a convergence of our trust and of our cunning, our credence and our reservation.

That is, we must be naive enough to place our faith in language as a factor of our mythology while, at the same time, we must be canny enough to employ language as a medium for that same mythology. And the solution to that most amazing of all paradoxes lies in the skill with which we attempt to balance the one against the other—our innocence against our cleverness, our gullibility against our guile—within a synchronous dialogue in which mythology and language trade off against each other, first one as concrete figure within the subsidiary context of the other, then vice versa, allowing us to believe in our mythology as we practice our language, and to believe in our language as we practice our mythology while, at the same time, we extend those same beliefs and practices to embrace our partner who herself must complete our language and our mythology. It is this double sense of completion—of ourselves and of each other—that makes communal experience possible as a performance in which each participant does for the other what she cannot do for herself, bringing about a unification of language and mythology through their shared disjunction. When you speak I surrender my mythology to you so that I do not hear your words but experience your meanings directly. I embrace you with my innocence in order to appreciate your competence, and when I respond you do the same for me. Together we complete each other, achieving our separate identities within a community of activity to which we each contribute belief and practice in like degree.

Innocent belief and clever practice are, in fact, the two poles that Bruner discovers in all mythology:

From . . . early myths there emerge two types of mythic plot: the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness—the former being a kind of Arcadian ideal, requiring the eschewal of complexity and awareness, the latter requiring the cultivation of competence almost to the point of guile (3).

Every individual myth represents a variation upon the possibilities for equilibrium offered by these two poles, and the mythic hero who exemplifies a particular possibility for their integration serves as a paragon for the instruction of those who would strive for excellence within a particular community of belief:

The manner in which superior knowledge shows itself changes: the ideal of the crafty warrior, the wise man, the interpreter of the word of God, the Renaissance omni-competent, the wily merchant, the financial wizard, the political genius. It is true that in some way each is suspect, it is also true that each is idealized in his own way. . . . New versions arise to reflect the ritual and practice of each era—the modifications of the happiness of innocence and the satisfaction of competence (4).

The dynamic quality of superior knowledge, its essentially evolutionary character, demonstrates that a mythology is not a fixed system within which individuals are restricted to certain traditional ways of practice and belief. Rather, a mythology is a vehicle of transcendence, a way by which individual and community alike can undertake the hazardous journey of becoming. Its function is not to hold a people back, but to encourage it to propel itself forward, competently yet innocently into the altered conditions of the future. A mythology, in fact, is a miraculous aspect of biology that enables an entire population to base its forward thrust upon its most striking examples of past success while, at the same time, making allowance for the inevitable expansion and improvement—and ultimate replacement—of those same examples.

To function effectively in this way, a mythology should be allowed to grow. Its emphasis should be upon current affirmation rather than on preservation of the past. . . . A mythology is a progressive system of belief that seeks out successive states of dis-illusion in which the old innocence continually gives way to an improved sense of competence which, in turn, makes possible the attainment of a renewed state of innocence. The alternative is exemplified by the French Academy’s attempt to preserve the purity of the French language by withholding its sanction from all neologisms and words of foreign extraction. The conceit implied by that endeavor seems to demand the suppression of all evidence that the French of the 1860s was not the language of God the father, but itself evolved—as did Rumanian and Catalan, from a foreign tongue!

Each combination of competence and innocence represents the achievement of a particular heroic individual who shows others the way to obtain the “right” balance between cunning and acceptance, meaning and existence. In fact every individual within her [interactive] involvement with her culture is at once a free and independent person who only abstractly can be taken as a representative of her community and, at the same time, an amorphous mass of possibilities whose realization is entirely dependent upon the concrete gifts she receives from the mythology granting her an identity. Each of us, that is, is simultaneously an existential child, and affirmation of pure and innocent participation in being, and at the same time is a mature and sagacious elder of the tribe, a bearer of tradition and of wisdom. When we speak, we strive for resonance between these two aspects of our [conscious] experience so our words may convey a sense of conviction that we have managed to equate our heroism with our vulnerability and thus we stand forth as an integrated whole in which every aspect of experience is represented according to a dynamic balance of our longing and our accomplishment, a synthesis that makes our words accessible to our partners in dialogue because they seek a similar resonance.

A mythology is perpetuated by acts of mutual accompaniment that allow us to form a community of synchronous affirmation. My innocence affirms the competence with which you express your thoughts through symbolic gestures, just as my own competence affirms your innocence as a confederate in a shared mythology. We complement one another so that through our joint participation in mythology we are able to achieve a being together in meaning. We employ every aspect of that mythology, every symbol, in two senses: as a concrete linguistic statement of our being, and an abstract mythological reference to our meaning. By looping these symbols in a chain that leads from my being to your meaning and back again via your being to my meaning, we align ourselves in a community of gesture and belief that affirms the possibilities of our individual experience even as we affirm its superior possibilities for our inter-subjective conjunction. This mutual affirmation of individual and communal possibilities is discussed by Bruner in the following terms:

I would like to submit that the manner in which man has striven for competence and longed for inno-cence has reflected the controlling myths of the community. The medieval scholar, the Florentine prince, the guild craftsman alike, as well as the withdrawn monastic of Thomas a Kempis and the mendicant of St. Francis—all of these are deeply involved with the myths of innocence and com-petence, and are formed by them. . . . It is not simply society that patterns itself on the idealizing myths, but unconsciously it is the individual man as well who is able to structure his internal clamor of identities in terms of prevailing myths. Life then produces myth and finally imitates it (5).

Mythology alerts us to the possibility of attaining heroic stature and identity while receiving our creative gestures as a per-formance of our own heroic strivings. The hero . . . is the founder within us, the innovator who furthers the spirit of becoming within a mythology by questing after the expansion of the old tradition and the novel fulfillment of each individual’s heritage. By warranting our creative natures, a mythology commits itself to its own renovation and development through our fulfillment of its prospects. It holds before us “a corpus of images and identities and models that provides the pattern to which growth may aspire—a range of metaphoric identities” (6), so that our innovative competence is encouraged and the attainment of new horizons made possible.

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How strange to read over the shoulder of my younger self as a writer. Strange in that I was different then, but the same as I am today, pursuing the same quarry within the human mind, seat of all human experience. Mythology is alive and well in the recesses of consciousness, the same as it ever was, serving the same purpose of aligning the individual with her culture, calibrating her mind in socially-acceptable terms, transforming each unique person into “one of us,” providing her with a social identity, much as the State Department provides her with a passport so she can explain to the Customs officer who she truly is.

My current interest in innocence and competence is as broad categorizations of states of consciousness and the gestures (actions) by which they engage the world of objects and other conscious beings. Innocence is a kind of openness to—or even fearlessness of—events. It is the state of mind necessary for learning what the current situation has to offer. Competence is the state of mind adequate to performing appropriately in a variety of situations. Competence is suitable to every occasion; innocence is the gateway to experience in the here and now. In psychological terms, competence prepares for assimilation, innocence for accommodation, the two together equipping us to engage the world on either its terms or ours. Where competence categorizes the world as it sees fit, innocence is ready to try its hand at learning to categorize as a means of reaching out to the world. Experience is a balance between these two approaches, the willingness to learn and the willingness to show what you can do.

To me, personally, these are aspects of one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness—how we make sense of experience by categorizing it one way or another. Expect more on that topic in future posts. For now, thank you, Jerome Bruner, for the assist.

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Notes:

(1) Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” in Murray, Henry A., ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Braziller, 1960, 281).

(2) Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 382f., quoted in Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” 280.

(3) Same as (1).

(4) Same source, 282.

(5) Same source, 282f.

(6) Same as (2).

 

(Copyright © 2009)

The center of the spectacle is straight overhead. Looking up, I see streamers shimmering from around the horizon toward that focus where, wavering, flowing, they whirl together in a pulsing gyre of living forms that spreads and contracts and shifts its shape as I watch. Glowing spiders turn into snakes into eyes into butterflies. The air is clear, sky dark, each star a vivid needle of light. Beneath the stars, the cartwheel aurora rings its changes without repetition as if two eyes aren’t enough to take it in and I need ears as well. I am having a whole-body experience. Candle flames turn into running wolves into great whales into chickens, rays shooting above the trees all the while, feeding the gyre, spinning it round and round and into itself. Roses turn to sparklers turn to ants turn to dinosaurs. The spectacle goes on for hours, each second requiring my whole attention. What if I blinked and missed something? But eventually, cold, stiff, tired, I not only blink but go to bed, my head swimming with the best display of northern lights I’ve ever seen—and as it turns out, ever will see in my life.

I wrote it all down next morning, as much as I could remember, making lists of images in sequence as one led to another. But I lost the list, so rely on fading memory in writing this post, trying to get the feel at least in place of exact details. I didn’t know I was having a spiritual experience at the time, but looking back, that’s what I’d say it was now. Wholly engaged and alive, I met the cosmos half-way as it revealed itself to me as if I was part of the lightshow itself. As if I belonged there so I could participate on my own scale of wonder as the sky showed what it could do in spreading its mystery and glory before me. The cosmos was shining down, and I rose to the occasion by paying it the attention—the homage—it deserved.

Speaking of homage, the English words homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all descend from the same root in an ancient language spoken near the northern end of (what we now call) the Caspian Sea seven thousand years ago.  Languages in Europe and Asia based on such roots include (among many others) Persian, Hindi, Kurdish, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and English. Homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all have meanings relating to Earth because that’s what their common ancient root dhghem- meant in the Proto-Indo-European language long ago.

Like reverence and veneration, homage is a show of honor and respect to another to whom it is due. In my scale of values, paying close attention to something is a way of devoting my consciousness to it as a sign of its importance in my little world. It is one way to give of myself in return for what consciousness gives to me. That is exactly how I felt watching the shape-shifting aurora overhead. I wasn’t passively observing it; I was interacting with it on a mutual basis, serving it by giving it prominence in my mind. I call the giving of personal homage in that way a spiritual act.

Typically, people think of spirituality as implying a relation with capital-g God, but that’s not how I mean it. God comes with too much baggage and too many special needs in being the so-called creator, supreme ruler and judge of the universe, party to a covenant favoring one group of people above all others, yet another male in superhero guise, and advocate for subjecting the natural world to human domination. It is exactly that sort of program carried out by the faithful that has led to Earth’s desecration. So many people in America claiming to believe in such a figure leaves no doubt in my mind why this nation is in the sorry state it is today. The God story doesn’t even make a good read as a myth because the main character is so arrogant, demanding, excitable, and intolerant—so patriarchal. As a concept in the human mind, God is a regrettable habit it is time we outgrew—or impeached. No, for me spirituality has nothing to do with God or any religion centered on God.

If not God or religion, what then is the basis of spirituality? Not scripture, surely. More, some form of nonverbal engagement with someone or something deserving the highest level of attention and respect. Such as the display of northern lights I brought up at the start of this post. Like the exquisite lion’s mane jellyfish three-and-a-half feet across I met while rowing, the most beautiful creature I have ever seen—better than a unicorn (had I encountered one). It wafted to Taunton Bay via the Labrador Current; it might well have splashed down from outer space—off Baffin Island, say—and drifted the rest of the way. Amethyst, shaped and billowing like a submersible parachute, fully transparent, it swam just under the surface three inches below me: I could see every detail, including the barbed tendrils it used to snare its prey. I’d seen countless smaller lion’s manes washed up on shore, looking like day-old helpings of raspberry Jell-O. Usually in winter. But this was a bright spring day. I rowed off to get my camera, and of course the jellyfish was gone when I got back. I followed the current but never saw it again. Like the cartwheel aurora, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But that one encounter was what it took to forge a memory I will take to the crematorium.

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope. What I get for exercising my spiritual consciousness is a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, of having a place in the All. Not only a place but having a sense of participating—as myself—wherever I am. I am not obliged to worship anything, beg forgiveness, tithe, genuflect, or confess my sins. Free to be myself, I find my own way in a universe I happen to find very stimulating and often attractive. I am deeply appreciative, but get far more back from the All than the attentions I give. I don’t ask for beauty, it simply appears, particularly when I do not expect it.

Wholly engaged in such a way, I am moved to be alive in that place at that time. We come together, cosmos and I. The word I use for that wordless state is spirituality.

Spirituality, then, is the sense of affirmation that comes back to me when I care for the world that consciousness reveals to my awareness. Care is the essential factor, the feeling not just of being there, but of putting myself out to care for and about where I am. As an Earthling in good standing, I willingly oblige myself to care for my home planet and to respect its inhabitants, both human and otherwise. Spirituality is a looping engagement with my Earthly surroundings such that my awareness is enriched by paying attention to events which return the investment many times over.

I am on top of Cadillac Mountain at dawn as two artists in residence—two dancers—give their final performance. The stage consists of two granite slabs close together. Lighting is provided by the rising sun shining on the barefoot dancers from behind—revealing them as silhouettes. One is seated facing the sun, the other standing with raised arms poised in welcome. The sun moves; the seated figure rises on one knee; the other beckons with stretched arm to the side. As the dance progresses, it is clear the movements are for the benefit of the sun, not the audience. We are merely a backdrop. Suddenly I realize I am made of granite, a kind of menhir, placed among other standing monuments to mark the commencement of a new day. We’ve been here since the Laurentian Ice Sheet retreated 12 thousand years ago. The dancers move about gracefully on their respective slabs, then after a while come to a halt. The menhirs around me clap, bringing me to my senses, so I clap as well. Appreciations are murmured, then dancers and audience drift off. The slabs remain, showing no trace of the performance. It was dark when I arrived at the summit; now the sun is well on its way to a summit of its own.

Spirituality is transformative. It spurs exploration of other dimensions of consciousness, providing novel perspectives on everyday life. I don’t need drugs to achieve such a state, or endless chanting, or stressful postures. All I need is to give myself wholly to experiencing the moment wherever I am. In that sense, spirituality is a celebratory attitude toward consciousness itself.

The word spirituality refers to the state of being spiritual, which means having the nature of spirit, which derives from Latin spiritus meaning breath, breathing, air, life, soul, and other good things. The concept of spirit is based on breathing seen as the essential medium of life. When the baby cries at birth, she takes her first breath; when the codger issues his last gasp, he dies. Life is the interval between first and last breaths. So very early on, breath was interpreted as the vital, animating principle bringing inert matter to life. At a particular time and place, the name for that principle was spiritus, and that name has stuck to our day.

In the meantime, our understanding of life has advanced so we know oxygen in the air is essential to life, but it is not the whole story. We also know food providing calories to burn in the presence of oxygen is essential to life, as many chemical nutrients are essential. And a genome of some sort is necessary to provide bodily architecture enabling the many processes of life. The so-called life principle turns out to be far more complex than the ancients could grasp. Breath and breathing come nowhere near accounting for life. And nominating God as the agent bestowing life by breathing in a baby’s mouth and withdrawing it from the old codger, in light of what we know today, appears not only old-fashioned but simply wrong.

So we are left with the word spirituality in our vocabulary that cannot possibly mean what it once did. Understanding has moved on, leaving it an orphan, a word without meaning. Yet, too, a word toward which we have an attitude of respect because it was so useful in explaining the mystery of life. What do we do with it? We have a choice: stick to old ways, or graft new understanding onto old roots. Keep the term but give it a new meaning—exactly what I am up to in this post. That way, we acknowledge our nature as creatures of habit, but give ourselves a push forward in updating the conventional wisdom of our day. (The term God, too, needs updating because its former meaning as spiritual ruler of the universe is now so eroded as to be full of holes, leaving many of us trying to catch rain in a sieve. But that’s another post for another day.)

Take One: I am in a parking lot, beneath a poplar just leafing out. Carole and I are ignoring the cars, looking up at a yellow-and-black bird singing on a branch of the tree like the muezzin in his minaret. We have cause to listen: that male goldfinch is announcing himself to (the female portion of) his world, “I will support you with my vigor and the territory I am claiming even now; won’t you join me?” Truth and beauty from the beak of a bird. Take Two: We are entering Acadia from Route 3 by a path leading across the top of a beaver dam. The air is filled with music. Carole points across the pond to a red dot high in a dead tree. That dot is the source of the melody we hear—a male scarlet tanager singing his heart out—commanding us and every other eared being within range to listen with awe to that one voice of all voices in the universe. Take Three: I am alone on an island in April, walking from the stone cabin my father built in 1940-41 to the shingled cabin I built in 1976. It rained in the night; everything is damp and dripping, including me as I brush spruce boughs aside. Even so, I am having the time of my life listening to a male robin I cannot see in the tree overhead, caroling what I take to be the finest song ever sung. I didn’t know robins had it in them. But they are thrushes after all, related to hermit and wood thrushes, so I stand still for twenty minutes and give myself to wet woods that can produce such a sound.

Spiritual takes, all three. Transporting, transformative, never to be forgotten. When the universe calls, I stop to listen. Spirituality is that simple. Finally, another encounter with northern lights that rocked me not back on my heels but in my boat.

The night is clear and still. I am rowing to the island after a meeting that ran late. I keep looking over my shoulder to see the pale green aurora arching over the island, and its reflection under the island in the still bay filled with stars. The total effect is of a green eye with a black pupil: the island and its reflection being inside the shimmering green lozenge of the aurora and its reflection. Of all creatures on Earth, I am the only one to witness the apparition of this celestial eye looking back at me. In a sense, an illusion, but all awareness is illusion. I give up trying to row and turn my boat around so I, at my rowing station, can face north. What can I say? This is a time for looking, not speaking. For savoring, not acting. Everything comes together in this moment, island, aurora, universe, and me.

Sunrise-72

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Haiku and metaphor originate in situations that bring two aspects of consciousness together simultaneously as a comparison or more basic juxtaposition. One aspect is a sensory image, the other is a series of images that has mellowed into a concept or an idea stored in memory. The conscious mind addresses both aspects as a unified situation having a concrete sensory and an abstract cognitive part, the two parts binding in a moment of emotional comprehension which joins them, perhaps for the first time.

 

Too, haiku and metaphor have an additional dimension involving words and phrases representing the experiential situation as a disciplined language event. The experience of emotional understanding is given linguistic form, and the entire ensemble of sensory image, idea, emotional insight, and specific language is referred to as a haiku or metaphor.

 

It is the creator’s job to translate conscious experience into words which carry the burden of the event without distortion, deletion, or unnecessary addition. It is the reader’s job to rekindle the emotional understanding from exposure to the raw words. Both jobs require full conscious participation and an attitude supporting an undertaking requiring full awareness, concentration, emotional sensitivity, and linguistic skill.

 

It is no wonder that the true poets of our species are few and far between. But by a lesser standard, all of us are poets in everyday life when we achieve a grasp of a conscious situation involving sensory and cognitive input, emotional insight, understanding, and speech skills at our personal level of mastery—which we do every day.

 

Language is not the whole of consciousness by any means, but it is one door opening into the many aspects of consciousness underwriting every episode of human behavior. This adds a qualitative avenue to the understanding of the mind as a supplement to the quantitative route so favored by laboratory scientists. Artists and humanists have access to consciousness in ways those trained in scientific disciplines avoid, and therefore fail to fully appreciate, understand, or explore.

 

I base today’s post on rough translations of three haiku by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa ( 1763-1828 ) and one by Yosa Buson ( 1716-1783 ).

 

Example E.          a tethered horse

                             snow

                             in both stirrups

 

Buson’s horse is an idea, a compilation from all of the black-and-white westerns we have ever seen. Whoa! What’s that snow doing here? Not on the ground but in both stirrups! What’s the situation here? The rider has dismounted and is not minding his steed, staying overlong at the tavern, perhaps, or the whorehouse. He is inferred but not even mentioned, so we enter the consciousness of the horse. How does it feel to be left out in the cold? Terrible! Lonely. Hungry. Neglected. Of no use. Forgotten. It’s those snow-filled stirrups that so shock us. We’ve never considered such an image before. So it speaks clearly to us, rousing us, waking us up. Buson must actually have seen it, so he successfully conveys his compassion for the horse across all those miles and years which separate us. In the most economical way possible—that is the genius of haiku.

 

Example F.          mother I never knew

                             every time I see the ocean

                             every time

 

If you don’t know your mother, she is little more than an abstract idea. But the ocean is concrete—all those waves rolling, rolling against the shore. The sky has to be overcast, the waves glowing restless green. That feeling comes again, that empty yearning, that sadness, that self-blame for having no home to go to. It’s my fault. I must’ve really screwed up. So this is the home I keep coming back to. It is the same every time, yet not the home I was looking for. The home where she would be—if she were anywhere I could visit. Portraying ocean as unknown mother, Issa has done it again. Taken us into his conscious mind where we can glimpse how it must feel to be him.

 

Example G.         the man pulling radishes

                             points my way

                             with a radish

 

Like the stirrups and the ocean, that radish makes me see with fresh eyes. Makes me appreciate the situation. I’m on a journey and can’t find my way. Who can I ask for directions? Ah, in that field, the man pulling something up—radishes. He’s a stranger, so I don’t know him at all. He’s just another farmer to me. How else would he answer than by pointing with the radish in his hand? It all comes together: me the lone wanderer, the farmer, the radish. Now I know exactly where I am. And take delight in the image before me as I failed to appreciate it before. We are what we are. How could we be anything else? The trick now is to get that carrot gesture down on paper without burying the spontaneity of it under too many words. Issa makes it easy for me to put myself in his place as if his and my consciousness were the same.

 

Example H.         visiting the graves

                             the old dog

                             leads the way

 

Whose graves? The fallen, the famous, the ancients? This poem starts with graves as an idea, which doesn’t tell us much. Ah, the old dog. Not just any old dog, the one, specific old dog. We can see him there up ahead of us. The one in the lead that we follow as we visit the graves. We leap from our mind and our relationship with the dead to the dog’s mind and its relationship with the dead. That’s no mean leap—from human consciousness to dog consciousness. And we get the point. The dog had—and still has—a relationship with the dead. And we have come to rely on that relationship when we visit the graves ourselves. We love this particular guide because we respect his feelings and he respects ours. The dog is old, which suggests he had a relationship with the dead when they were alive. But, too, it warns us that soon we will have to visit the graves without our faithful guide. Which is not only a saddening thought but a scary one. We will be on our own. And we’re not getting any younger ourselves. Who will lead others to our graves when we are gone?

 

So here I have turned 38 of Issa’s and Buson’s words (in translation) into 1,087 words from my own consciousness. It took me 29 times as many words to say a part of what they said. Which is why some are poets and some are not. Haiku and metaphors are efficient means of conveying the sense of personal consciousness in the fewest possible words. The effort it takes to do that, however, can be immense. Poets are those who put in their ten-thousand hours of living, self-study, and preparation. Just ask Issa and Buson, they’ll tell you.

 

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For additional haiku, see:

Haiku Society of America Online Haiku Collections

 

Modern Haiku online issue samples

 

(Copyright © 2008)

Two blogs ago, I dealt with music’s power, emotion, and immediacy in reaching into consciousness. Music doesn’t have to wait for the brain to tell consciousness what it means. Even in the case of program music, the program (meaning) is external to the music, as in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, thunderstorm and all. The storm is in the program you know about, not the music you hear. If you don’t know the program, then the music is all.

 

In this blog I will make a start at dealing with sensory phenomena that elicit meanings in experience so that the being of sensory patterns is fulfilled by the meanings they intend in consciousness. Spoken and written language offer examples of experiences composed of meaningful patterns, as do common signs and symbols such as traffic lights, sirens, and pictures of celebrities and famous places. Red traffic lights mean “stop” because we were taught to put the two together at an early age. The meaning is not in the red itself; it is in our brains which interpret that color as telling us to stop.

 

Consciousness is the place where sensory patterns (phenomena) and meanings are coupled together. When that happens, we get it! We understand. That is, we make a connection between two very different aspects of mental life—percepts from our senses and concepts from memory. Meaning does not reside in the world. It inhabits our minds, retained as latent concepts waiting to be activated by a relevant pattern in one sensory channel or another.

 

Meaning emerges when summoned by sensory phenomena we have been trained (or inspired) to receive as information, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned that the ringing of a bell meant food was about to be served. Information requires a context or situation to make it meaningful; without one or the other, it’s just meaningless sensory data. We learn early on that vocal utterances (words, phrases, sentences) mean something to others, and by imitating those others in appropriate situations, those utterances come to mean somewhat the same thing to us.

 

The following anecdote from one of my mother’s friends, told as a childhood reminiscence cherished for almost eighty years, provides a good example of one such early attempt to connect a sensory image with its meaning:

 

Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’

 

To be human is to strive to put meanings to sounds and appearances, and when deceived, to try again. If we spell “banana,” “m-o-o-n,” while those around us disagree, do we not remember it all our lives, along with all the other times our judgments were found to be out of joint? Do we not learn from such occasions? Is any experience not centered upon the desire to attach meanings appropriately to the sensory patterns we pluck from our situations as we construe them? We belong to a tribe of meaning-makers. We may not always be wise, but we are ever game to try again.

 

“Look, out the window, dear.” “Goggie.” “And over there” “Goggie.” “And what about that one?” “Goggie.” “No, that’s not a doggie, it’s a kitty.” “Kikky.”

 

Slowly over time, concepts accrue in memory as categories containing common features derived from a series of experiences somewhat resembling one another. When we fit a new pattern in experience together with such a category, we see that pattern as an example extending or fulfilling the series. The coupling can be so tight, it’s almost as if the pattern exuded the meaning from its own nature—as if the phenomenon were meaningful in itself. Which someone else may intend, but the meaning is in the mind, not the phenomenon.

 

Meanings are always our doing. Depending on their situations and experience, different people will cast a variety of meanings onto one and the same sensory pattern of being. I cannot digest gluten, which is in everything made of wheat, rye, or barley. Donuts, pizza, seven-grain bread, and chocolate-chip cookies may appeal to the masses, but I avoid them as if made of anthrax flour. To me they mean poison, not party treats, not wholesome food.

 

Whether you see true-believers or infidels in front of you depends on how you regard them in light of your past experience. In themselves they are neither because each is a unique being, not a category filler. Whether a knife is a useful tool or a bloody weapon depends on which category you sort it into when you wield it at the moment.

 

I’m living in Cambridge (some years ago). I wake up one night to hear someone in the street calling “fa” in a hoarse voice. Looking for his dog, I figure. Or his father. “Fa,” “fa,” he goes on. And on. Little Johnny One Note. “Fa.” “Fa.” I hear the sounds, but it holds no meaning for me. I doze off. Then it strikes me—he isn’t crying “Fa,” he’s yelling “Fire” at the top of his old lungs. I look out the window. Flames are shooting from the roof of the house across the street. I call the fire department.

 

Meaning-making can be a matter of survival. If we get it wrong, we may wake up dead. Our minds have evolved to do the best we can to match events with appropriate meanings in the situations we are in. What’s that noise downstairs? The wind? Noisy shutter? The cat? Burglar? Probably the furnace.

 

The matching works both ways: phenomena can seek meanings, and meanings can seek sensory presentations. If you’re in a hungry situation, you can start to visualize dinner. I remember a woman saying, “Men, you know how they are.” The meaning was already there; she didn’t have to spell it out. Which is like an old Quaker lady asking a friend of mine, “Is thee a member of the one true faith?” She was a particular meaning waiting to happen. More of us are like that than not. We broadcast meaningful expectations and hope the world will fill in the dotted lines.

 

Sometimes we don’t have either a phenomenon or a meaning to begin with. We’ve lost our bearings. What will tomorrow (the future) bring? How will our present situation develop, and what will it mean for us? There’s a lot of that around these days, what with the changing of the White House guard, the recession, global warming, wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, the national debt. . . . In times like these, anxiety rules. Meaning keeps its distance. Stress is on the rise, which upsets consciousness. Dire or chaotic may be the best words we can come up with in describing our state of affairs. Invest in fortune tellers and astrologers; I expect them to thrive.

 

In the end, when we confront the full significance of our mortality, does anything remain but the tarnished spiral of our mortal coil, a shadowy track in the dust, bequeathed to those who stay behind on chance that someone will fit it to some kind of meaning?

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(Copyright © 2008)

Relationships are anything but static. In fact change often keeps them going. They are not meant to remain forever the same. Consciousness thrives on novelty and adventure. Sameness puts us to sleep. We are most alive when dealing with situations that interest us because we are invested in them. Without interest—z z z z z z z. We are all interested in love. Here’s what I wrote on that topic in my write-up of the same hike I dealt with in my last blog, (Reflection 22: Relationships):

 

Love is one of the greatest mysteries in any relationship. We know people become attracted to each other in such a way that acquaintance blossoms into friendship and, when desire conquers fear, into the more intimate stages of love. We do not know what starts the progression, or sustains its development. Why these two people out of millions? Why now? Why here? We come up with star-[matched] love and fatal attractions, but those are metaphors, not explanations. My hunch is that place draws people together. Lovers are active expression of their place on Earth. They stand somewhere, rising from ancient roots, living proof that their lineage is successful, and they are ready to commit themselves to the continuation of their lines into the future. Love flows not from the heart but from the Earth. From the springs of beauty, health, promise, and success. When two people come together as particular expressions of Earth’s bounty and ongoing creativity, they lay the foundation of the future, not just for themselves or their habitats, but for the next stage in the unfolding of the great universal adventure. Without the dimension of place, couples represent only themselves as motes entangled in air. The word “casual,” as in casual encounters, casual conversation, and casual sex, hints at the missing element of commitment to place. If this commitment is not part of a relationship, the coming together of two people is an accident of two desires rubbing against each other for fleeting gratification. Partners who endure represent more than themselves. They are Earth embracing Earth, place embracing place, life embracing life.

 

Each of us becomes an agent for our placement in life. We let our genes do the talking. Our life worlds, then, open onto scenes or situations peopled by other agents, objects, props, scenery—all viewed from our perspective, all seen in relationship one to another. This is the phenomenal world which constitutes our consciousness moment by moment as such situations change and develop into stories or, when conceptualized, scenarios. All consciousness emerges from the perspective of the self, is situational in nature, and flows along like a river or storyline. We are eager to find out—and to live—what happens next as the situation unfolds in awareness.

 

Through language, we give voice to situations as we experience them from our points of view. Prepositions, by definition, are relational: from, to, in, on, by, over, through, across, under, near, and so on. Conjunctions are relational: and, for, or, both, either, before, until, while. Subjects or agents acting on other agents or objects are demonstrably relational through verbs depicting specific actions: hit, take, move, cry, tell, hold, share. Adverbs modify the description of such actions: slowly, carelessly, deliberately, repeatedly, relentlessly, lovingly. Even conceptual nouns are situational in being evoked by particular sensory phenomena as being relevant to a situation unfolding in consciousness. Their reference is not to the outside world or to memory itself, but to the situation the speaker/writer actively holds in awareness because it interests her and arouses her feelings and attention at the moment.

 

As that moment of attention leads on to another, the situation develops, and consciousness follows along, eager to see what happens next. The motivated self or point of view brings up a situation in consciousness, which soon changes into a different situation, and then evolves into a situation with a history heading in a certain direction—thus becoming a story (or joke, episode, paragraph, song, opera, painting, and so on).

 

Each of the postings I include in this blog is a reflection of my state of consciousness as I piece it together at my computer. I set Reflection 20: Nothing on My Mind to post at 6:00 a.m., Friday, November 7. The night before, I woke in the middle of the night regretting two words I had added at the last minute. I felt they opened up side channels which distracted from the flow of the piece. I got up at 6:00 and deleted those two words. Reading that reflection through, I find it flows in fourteen paragraphs like a rushing river through, more-or-less in order:

 

  • cargo cults
  • shepherds watching their flocks at night
  • progression of the seasons
  • rural activities dependent on seasonal floods
  • uses of the calendar
  • angel messengers in the heavens
  • removal of social authority to urban areas
  • the idea of supreme beings
  • outer limits of concept formation
  • emptiness of absolute concepts
  • consequences of monotheism
  • the hollowness of supremacy, all leading to
  • the powerful abusing the consciousness of the weak.

 

That’s quite a story. All told from my perspective on a natural situation evolving over time into a modern cultural situation with a long and complicated history in human consciousness. Each generation lives only one episode, so cannot fully grasp the big picture. But if we seek them out, we can retrieve many of the separate episodes and piece them together. Which is what I tried to do in Reflection 20, giving not just the current state of affairs, but also the key stages of its evolution as seen from the point of view of my state of consciousness when I wrote that blog (which, if I live long enough, is apt to go through additional stages in years ahead).

 

Consciousness is all about evolving relationships in evolving situations as experienced from an ever evolving point of view. There are no absolutes in consciousness. Everything is seen in relation to everything else. Like the juggler, we hoist our set of Indian clubs (or hacky sacks) on our own and keep them flying until we die. There’s my set, your set, your mother’s set, your father’s, your children’s sets, and on and on. We do our best to keep them flying. Sometimes we drop a few, or all of them. We pick them up and start again as best we can. When we tire, we toss a few and keep going until the end.

 

Such is the challenge of consciousness. We have to work at it. All the time. And try to keep abreast of the situations we find ourselves in. Now it’s personal relationships, children, global warming, economic collapse, fuel costs, loss of jobs, hard times, and all the rest. Here we are, each living our own story, our evolving life, doing the best we can with what we’ve got in the time allowed.

 

This is the kind of situation consciousness has evolved to help us deal with. Few if any saw it coming. But now it’s here, and tomorrow will evolve into a new situation. Novelty is at the core of human awareness. Now our job is to apply our judgment to the options before us, prioritize those options, work as closely as we can with our partners in similar situations, hoist our clubs and keep going. Every generation has its time to shine. This is ours.

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(Copyright © 2008)

Is language at the heart of consciousness, or is more on the periphery, like my left big toe? There are those who claim language plays an essential role, but I have so many experiences that don’t involve language, I strongly disagree with them. Take these examples that followed in quick succession in my stream of consciousness on October 27, 2008:

 

Checking for damage after a major windstorm the day before, I walk by the ledgestone cabin my father built in the early 1940s. No trees or branches on the roof, that’s good. At least that is the content of my thought, even though it is not conveyed in so many words. It is latent language, proto-language, easily converted into language, but existing more as preverbal kernels or nuggets of awareness. Looking down, I see a row of green columbine leaves running along under the edge of the roof where they had naturally sown themselves over the years. “Columbine Cottage,” I think, as if I am trying to come up with a name for the place, which I’m not. Passing the cabin, I am abruptly overtaken by the scent of balsam fir. Just the smell, no thoughts of Christmas, or of the tree itself. I automatically look to my right and see fir branches covered with small beads of moisture. Images without words. Just then I hear the cry of an eagle from treetops ahead. No words, just the sound. Not even thoughts of treetops or eagles. But there is something else. A lilting undercurrent of feeling. I am glad there are no branches on the roof, it’s in bad enough shape as it is. I am pleased to see the columbine leaves, as if meeting an old friend. I am almost overcome by the scent of balsam fir, as I am every time those particular molecules waft up my nose. And I am lifted by the cry of the eagle, both excited and proud to hear from one of my nearest and dearest neighbors. “Columbine Cottage” is the only verbal phrase that forms in my mind (I don’t think I said it aloud). The rest is sight, smell, sound. Sensory consciousness, not verbal—with feeling. That’s a good part of my inner life. When I am in nature, nature is in me. No words need apply.

 

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist, set out to demonstrate that language plays a crucial role in concept formation, but what his experiments actually show is that words can help in teaching specific concepts to naive subjects, not that they are essential to concept formation itself. (Thought and Language, originally published in Russian, 1934; reissued by MIT Press, 1962.) Words may supply the labels by which we retrieve concepts as categories of experience, but so may shapes, colors, patterns, textures, and so on. I don’t need language to recall columbine to mind, I need the shape of the leaves, the red and yellow blossoms, or a locale with scant soil but plenty of moisture.

 

I remember smells that have no name, such as the smell of Ryan’s Feed Store, where as a kid I climbed on dusty sacks of grain piled to the cobwebby rafters of the old warehouse in Hamilton, New York in the 1930s. I remember the scent of mixed grains, sacks seen by the dim light of a bare bulb, the danger and excitement of the climb, the feel of the sacks underfoot. None of it verbal or ever written down.

 

It was the smell of a dry piece of bread in Bethel, Maine, that brought Ryan’s to mind while I was helping clean up after an NTL workshop session in 1980. I was about to chuck the crust into the trash when I mindlessly raised it to my nose and sniffed—Shazam!, I was back under the rafters in Ryan’s Feed Store on Maple Avenue. I wasn’t remembering being there, I was actually there, transported by a scent I hadn’t smelled in forty years. There were no magic words; a few molecules settling on my olfactory membrane did the trick.

 

I am thinking here of episodic memories that retain particular details from my neural autobiography. Such one-time episodes are more sensory than conceptual, laid down by the force of strong feelings at the time, not distilled as concepts are from repetition of key features across different episodes. Episodic memories comprise a constellation of specific elements in relationship. They are situational in nature, bound by a feeling tone that marks their importance. Too, they are localized in both time and place. Think losing your virginity, moving to Seattle, the day Kennedy was shot, 9/11.

 

Concepts on the other hand are feeling-neutral memories which are generally unrestricted by time and place. They are derived from sensory experience, but have specific occasions stripped away, leaving only the essentials shared in common. Think dogs, flowers, fish, books, numbers. Concepts are categories of experience but not experience itself. What is concrete and sensory about conceptual memories is the name we give to each category. We can hear it, speak it, write it, read it again and again. We can even sculpt it ( LOVE ) or print it across a T-shirt ( ÿPEACE ).

 

The genius of language is its economy. You can use the same words in different combinations to apply to different occasions over and over again. Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and German shepherds are all “dogs.” So are mongrels, mutts, and mixed-breeds. This general utility is a great boon to categorical thinking. But when it comes to putting our specific life experience into words, enter the thingamajig, whachamacallit, thingamy, and widget, along with what’s-her-name, what’s-his-face, and you-know-who-I-mean, whoever. That is, the content of consciousness is often so specific that it taxes—and often defies—our ability to describe it in words.

 

The upshot is, we often substitute conceptual thinking for getting a specific point across through concise use of language. Think of the broad brush with which Sarah Palin smears Barack Obama, making it seem she knows what she is talking about when, in fact, she is wide of the mark. Joe the Plumber has become a nonperson who represents an attitude, not a living human being. He is a character in a make-believe drama, no more real than Mickey Mouse or The Wizard of Oz.

 

And think of the huge tasks facing President Obama/McCain in implementing the policies they have outlined in general terms as if giving specific details. Their stump speeches outline attitudes more than policies that can be effected through detailed programs. Yet we hear them and shout, “Right on!” because they have mouthed the words we so long to hear. In truth, we don’t know the answers to world and national problems any more than the candidates do. No one can read the future, yet we all pretend that we can. And language contains enough slop to fool us into thinking we know what we mean to say.

 

My advice is take the pronouncements of candidates and pundits with enough salt to dry the excess spit from their words. Talking heads are reading scripts scrolling on Teleprompters, not speaking from the depths of their experience. Or if not scripted, they are trying hard to appear wise, and hoping we overlook their personal agendas.

 

I threw my television set out twenty-two years ago because everything on it was staged to manipulate my personal consciousness to someone else’s advantage. The mass media are about mind control, not informing the public. Skepticism is the best defense, and open curiosity the surest path to the truth. Don’t believe everything you hear, not even if you say it yourself. Which is a hard rule for bloggers to follow, including me.

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Reflection 14: Mindreading

October 28, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

We generally think of language as a matter of words, but we know it is much more than that. How we deliver an utterance is every bit as important as what we say. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and you will know what I mean. The music of language includes pitch, intonation, rhythm, pace, voicing, and other nonverbal aspects. Body language adds to the message. Our stance tells how engaged we are, our facial expressions and hand movements underscore what we say, and as always our eyes speak volumes about our attitude toward our topic, hearers, and speech occasions. Our eyes, after all, are forward extensions of our brains. The light within is the very radiance of our mental activity.

 

Do these factors enter conscious awareness? Not very often. We take them in as part of the message and its occasion without really paying attention to them. If we think we are receiving mixed messages from someone, then we may start looking for discord between the different channels involved in language. But generally we regard them as incidental rather than as essential clues to how we are to interpret a given utterance.

 

We do know that talking with someone on the telephone is very different from speaking with them face-to-face. Without seeing posture, gestures, and facial expressions, it is harder to understand what is being said, and harder to get our own side of the conversation across. “Do you know what I’m saying?” doesn’t really do much beyond make the listener feel like a dope.

 

Written language is even worse in that regard because it deprives us of the non-vocal sounds that are intimately bound to words on the page but simply aren’t there. Exclamation and question marks help, as do commas and periods, but they provide very rude support in helping us block out the message. Mostly we fall back on imagination to fill in the missing parts, so we read with an as if kind of attitude—as if we were witnessing someone actually saying those words. That is, we are left to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and there’s no sure way of knowing if we are reading the situation correctly or not. As in reading poetry, we have to use every clue we are given.

 

This is a kind of language participation that often gives persons with autism a great deal of difficulty. They have trouble reading postures, gestures, expressions, and eyes. Which are all parts of the language occasion or situation. They hear the literal words without all the trimmings that help make it clear what is being said. So their consciousness of language is diminished to a degree. Neuroscientists say those with autism often lack a “theory of mind” that lets them identify with the mental states and intentions of others, so they can’t “read” their minds. Even though few of us are aware such signals are part of everyday language, we are taking them in on some level and our understanding acknowledges that fact. Which is a tricky part of consciousness because we register the effects of those signals without being aware of the evidence itself.

 

We may not know how we do it, but in many situations we are able to read minds. How do we know that we know what we think we know is going on in another person’s head? The short answer is we can’t ever know for sure. But the long answer is that many times we can trust our intuition. Without such an ability, how would we ever feel empathy for another’s condition? How could we ever be with anyone else in spirit? How could we communicate on an intimate level, and so feel connected? Consciousness must be an additive function that doesn’t settle for taking the world at face value but adds an assortment of subliminal signals into a coherent impression beyond what can be experienced directly through sensory channels. And when the signals don’t add up, we become consciously aware of dissonance or mixed messages that put us on our guard.

 

I suspect we learn to read other people’s intentions very early in childhood through imitation of their gestures and expressions in a spirit of play. That way we establish a kind of resonance based on a caregiver’s grasp of our level of understanding, and build on that. In short order we get good at mimicking gestures and facial expressions (for which we are rewarded with feedback such as smiles, giggles, hugs, and kisses), which leads to anticipating what others are going to say and do, as if we could read their minds. Way before our formal schooling, through playful interactions we have laid the foundation for social exchanges we will rely on every day of our lives.

 

Our mindreading skills stem from imagination reinforced by positive feedback. We put ourselves out there and learn from what happens. Taking the feedback to heart, we venture again. And again. These fundamental social skills are acquired by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Scientists talk about the brain as a computer performing computations based on information received from outside. But really, “information” isn’t informative in this sense because the brain doesn’t have access to the situation in which data becomes meaningful on its own. The information-processing view is laid on our brains by others, but each of us develops consciousness on the inside by making gestures in the world, receiving feedback, refining our gestures, and modifying our behavior in a kind of endless loop of experience that is self-generating and self-improving. We on the inside are always the judge of what is effective and what isn’t. Those around us have as much to learn from us as we do from them.

 

Consciousness is spurred by imagination and a spirit of fun. Forget information. The more merriment, the better.

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