Reflection 318: Self-Engagement

September 12, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I picture it, my mind consists of three parts operating in sequence: 1) a sensory or perceptual part that develops a felt understanding of my current situation in the world, 2) a visualizing part that represents that situation as interpreted from my personal point of view, and 3) a behavioral part devoted to planning and executing a course of action in fitting response to the situation I believe myself to be in.

The situation I create for myself on the basis of sensory evidence as I interpret it is the central feature of my conscious mind. I do not live in the material world so much as in an internal milieu I create for myself by giving personal meaning to the public energies impinging on my senses. The situation I live in is my version of the world as I take it to be. The world-as-it-is-in-itself is far too complicated for me to grasp; there’s too much going on at once. I can only deal with a simplified version that can bear the burden of meaning I thrust upon it. The raw energy I confront may be in the world, but the patterns I recognize and understand in the light of my prior experience are mine alone.

The same is true of the actions I take in response to felt situations—that response is my personal response to my situation as I am able to construe it. My actions are a function of the personal skills and abilities I have developed by living my personal life history of trial, error, practice, and rehearsal.

Perception, situation, action—these are the essential stages of awareness that in tandem make up my looping engagement with the energy-rich yet unknowable-in-itself world I live in. The interpreted world I construct for myself from patterns of energy selectively drawn from my surroundings—and emphasize by my fears and desires—shifts from one situation to the next, leading me to act as I do in making myself happen in the world as subjectively represented in the flow of situations through my internal milieu.

No, I do not live In the real world. None of us does. We live in inner worlds of our own making. We move from one situation to another as we can make out familiar patterns in the raw energies the world sends our way. Start to finish, life is a creative adventure we strive to make the best of in one loop of engagement, then the next, and the next.

We are driven by the valence of the feelings each situation kindles in us as we engage ourselves: good or bad, positive or negative, pro or con, hope or dread, carrot or stick. So are we propelled forward by the situations we find ourselves in, avoiding pain, seeking relief and happiness, engagement after engagement, loop after loop.

In my next post, I will offer my recent engagement with with wildness as an example of my creating a series of situations in which to make myself happen by acting in familiar ways through my chosen medium of photography.

Until next time, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

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Reflection 316: Self-Awareness

September 7, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

As I see it, phenomenology applies the powers of mind to understanding the self. Fundamentally, it is self-reflection taken to an extreme degree in discovering not the everyday, self-accustomed I in its everyday world, but how the biological self pieces together that I from the several dimensions of consciousness. These dimensions include sensory impressions; meaningful interpretations of those impressions; as well as feelings, biological values, autobiographical memory, accustomed habits, personal points of view, and felt situations within which subsequent courses of action become meaningful.

Phenomenology, that is, accounts for derivation of a course of appropriate action from analysis of sensory input within a situation informed by both current motivation and prior experience. It is an ongoing process for suiting actions of the self to the conditions shaping the situation within which that self exists as a coherent whole composed of diverse dimensions of consciousness.

From my own self-analysis, I identify these dimensions as including, on the perceptual side:

  • the cultural setting of experience
  • expectancy derived from past experience
  • arousal or wakefulness
  • attention
  • sensory impressions or phenomena
  • concepts as recognizable classes of sensory impressions
  • understanding within fields of interrelated concepts
  • feelings
  • biological values
  • culminating in a perspectival sense of the situation one is facing at the time.

Dimensions of consciousness on the behavioral side include:

  • judgments prompted by felt situations
  • decisions about what might be done
  • setting of goals
  • planning of projects and relationships
  • execution of projects and relationships
  • culminating in a program of action monitored by attention.

The entire assembly of coordinated dimensions of consciousness constitutes a loop of engagement joining an individual to a world within the situation as consciously construed in his or her mind.

By this scheme, our lives don’t just happen as they do; we make them happen in light of our biological motivations and prior experiences applied to our current situations as we construct them in our minds. Yes, we respond to patterns of energy interpreted as events in the world, but we also make ourselves happen as our engagements with those ongoing events develop moment-by-moment.

Phenomenology is the conscious and deliberate study of those momentary events in our personal experience as based on the dimensions of consciousness that apply at the time. Even if we don’t study them, those moments happen unconsciously anyway—as if we had no agency in their doing. Phenomenology applies the powers of the mind to personal experience, highlighting our role in making ourselves happen as we do.

No more and no less, phenomenology is the process of making ourselves—not world-aware—but self-aware. That is, it lets us shoulder responsibility for being ourselves without blaming the world for making us who we are. No learning can be more crucial than that in coming to self-understanding and self-realization. Which is why I am subjecting you to this exercise.

As ever, I remain y’r friend and brother, —Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

In Reflections 281–299, I have laid out my thoughts on consciousness as I live it every day. Or it lives me. I am a dutiful scribe doing his best to keep up with the flow of his own inner voice. In these nineteen posts, I have summarized thirty years of dictation from within, doing my best to capture the gist of my personal experience.

I could go on—and one way or another probably will. There are fine points yet to make. But the rough outline of one man’s streaming consciousness is enough to give you an idea of my looping engagement with sensory impressions, felt situations, and actions as suggestive of the world I live in every hour of my life, which is what I set out to get down in succinct form.

With engagements, the flow is the thing, from one moment to the next, featuring one dimension of consciousness at a time, eventually getting them all in, then moving on to the next moment and next event. I have proceeded from expectancy as carried over from previous events, to arousal, attention, and sensory impressions at a useful level of discernment; then on to interpretation of those impressions, understanding them, feeling and valuing their import, building to a felt situation representing the world I am in as seen from my personal perspective; leading to judgment about what do do, to decisions, to setting goals, to projects and relationships, to signals sent to muscles culminating in action in the unknowable world of matter and energy, completing one loop in preparation for the next after that.

So goes my consciousness; so goes my awareness; so goes my life. That’s how I experience it, that’s how I view it, that’s how I reflect upon the complex events flowing through my mind. What I offer is an anatomy of my mind itself, not my brain. Of my brain I experience nothing beyond what I read in neuroscience textbooks, which detail molecular events taking place in other people’s experience, not mine. They write their books, I write mine, all purporting to deal with consciousness as revealed from different disciplines and personal perspectives.

My contribution is to present an overview of one man’s consciousness compiled from his immediate experience of it in the original. Neuroscientists can study the brain forever and never have consciousness reveal itself to them. It exists as a whole, not an assemblage of parts. So I look to to the whole as it presents itself to me, and write about that. I can describe it as I experience it, but I cannot explain it. I leave explanation to others relying on different methods than I use.

My method is to deal with what I meet through introspective reflection. In the case of this blog, adding to 300 separate reflections on my first-person singular experience. It’s a suggestive method, but not always clear. I pay close attention to what I experience, but trial and error are at the fore, so I hit or miss the mark I am aiming at.

After 300 posts, I feel it is time to rest my case. The gist, as I said, is contained in Reflections 281-299. I suggest you go back and read them in order, and see what you find relevant to your own streaming consciousness. That way we can meet mind-to-mind as equals, which all of us—given our unique hopes and strivings—truly are.

I deeply appreciate the attention you have paid to my blog. Thank you for the time and effort you have put in. I invite you to give me a sign at this point; write a comment at the foot of this page. I remain y’rs truly, —Steve from planet Earth

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Actions (including speech) are how we get out of our heads and make ourselves known to the world. To reach the point where considered action becomes possible, we must shift our attention from the felt situation that motivates us to judging what kind of act would suit that situation. Once in that place, we can set goals for ourselves, engage in projects and relationships meant to lead us toward achieving those goals, and then implement them by acting within our projects and relationships to make our situated selves happen in the world, which is as far as we can go on one particular run of conscious activity. We then start on a new run by paying attention to incoming sensory impressions as shaped by expectancy and arousal, which redirect us to a revised understanding of our situation, and on to a further round of mental activity.

So runs our loop of engagement, from expectancy to arousal, attention and sensory impressions; on to interpretation of those impressions, understanding them, feeling and valuing their import in the form of an experiential situation as an extension of our personal history; and then on to judging the significance of that situation, setting goals, planning projects and relationships, and finally, implementing them in terms of intentional actions in the world.

Consciousness doesn’t circle so much as spiral because every round is different. Details get refined, skills improved, awareness enlarged, goals more closely approached—all heightening the sense of engagement. Two things escape our attention because we cannot attend them: 1) the working of the brain in supporting the mind, and 2) the working of the world in formulating it’s response to our individual projects and relationships as enacted, which remains to be sensed and interpreted during further rounds of engagement.

In summary, our loops or spirals of engagement comprise formation of sensory impressions, construction of felt situations from those impressions as interpreted, and taking appropriate action in light and fulfillment of key situations. Round by round, consciousness streams by as it does on a journey or in games of tennis, baseball, chess, or charades. The play’s the thing; our engagements are ongoing. If we take a break, we simply engage in other ways, as in dreams and reveries, or while on vacation.

As children, we grow into ourselves, learning how to engage within the intimate circumstances of our rearing. As a result, there are as many styles of engagement as there are childhoods. For instance, as adults, those who learn to fend for themselves without empathic support often end up being out for themselves alone, or solely for their sort of people, and don’t worry about the general well-being or self-fulfillment of others so much as hitting the jackpot or scoring points for themselves. They can be highly competitive, even thriving on the misfortune of others, on making a killing, inciting violence, or waging wars of aggression. Cooperative or diplomatic engagements are not their thing. They act as if they were alone in the universe, so worry only about what they can get out of it, not what they can give to or share with others. Their game is king of the mountain, which pits one against everyone else, a stark parody of Darwinian evolution. “One for one, all for none,” is their cry, the source of a great deal of poverty, suffering, and human misery.

No, engagement with others is the key to survival, starting with being on good terms with yourself through introspection and self-understanding, moving up to satisfying and respectful engagements with others (often unlike yourself) through play, working together, cooperating—each identifying with all as multiple variations on a single theme. If you can’t see yourself in others, you are missing the point of why each one is unique. Which is to to add to a whole through individuation, complementarity, and cooperation. So do we all fit together in forming one human family within one earthling family, which we are in both cases.

No man and no woman is an island (Donne’s metaphor), entire of itself. We all may be unique, but we are not alone, and never have been. We are made to engage again and again—our minds are proof of that.

Each man and each woman is one piece of the puzzle (my metaphor) of humanity, and of all earthlings beyond. After 299 posts, that is my message. As ever, I remain, y’r brother, —Steve from planet Earth

(Copyright © 2010)

My daily routine includes going to the post office to get my mail. At some point along the way I anticipate what might be waiting behind the window of box 585. I expect some kind of assortment made up of bills, appeals for money, fliers, catalogs, magazines, announcements, and maybe an actual letter. Since I can’t know for sure what I will find, or even if I’ll find anything, my expectations tend to be vague and low key—that is, not very exciting.

Entering the door of the post office, I see my box straight ahead. Immediately I can tell if something’s in it or not. Sometimes it’s so crammed I can’t see through to the canvas carts. That means magazines or catalogs. Most days I can’t tell if it’s The New Yorker waiting for me or The Nation. More often a few envelopes slant at an angle upper left corner to lower right, probably bills. Maybe FairPoint bill or notice from the New England Fisheries Management Council. I dial my combination—then all is revealed. Today’s mail: One letter—oops! overdrawn at the bank; “Registered Documents Enclosed,” another dunning from the DNC; Christian Science Monitor—Send No Money subscription offer; 2009 Maine Resident Individual Income Tax Booklet; Ben Meadows field research catalog thicker than the phone book. That’s how today’s cautious expectations are fulfilled. My mailbox is a placeholder for such transactions.

This non-drama is fully funded by my personal consciousness. Expectancy is the key. To get me out the door, consciousness has to move me to set a goal and act decisively. It tells me my survival and contentment depend on making a trip to the post office. Anticipation just above the subliminal level keeps me going. Things pick up when I can tell something’s in my box. Then abstract motivation switches to concrete fulfillment as I shuffle through the pile. Sort, sort; toss, toss, stuff in pocket. This is how my loop of engagement works, me casting my abstract expectations on the world, the world giving me back today’s mail to riffle through at the post office. The trick is that my expectations are a kind of summary of such experiences in the past, so are necessarily conceptual more than sensory. But that changes when I open the little door to get my mail. Then hands-on sensory experience takes over, and my expectations are fulfilled more or less in the here and now of the post office lobby.

I think of myself as living in real time, but I seldom am. Often past experience takes over and I dwell in the twilight zone of memory. Or I extrapolate from that zone in trying to visualize what the future will bring. And briefly, as in the lobby, I match past concepts to sensory percepts in the present, categorizing the sensory now in terms of the conceptual past. Conscious-ness is the time machine that lets me do that—switch back and forth. And it is consciousness that fools me into thinking I’m aware of the world around me all the time when, in fact, I keep moving between abstract memories, concrete sensory traffic, and abstract projections into what I think of as the future but is really the state of my mind at the moment. The switching is done so fast—on a scale of milliseconds rather than minutes or hours—I don’t even notice the abrupt seams in what I believe to be my uninterrupted stream of consciousness.

Everyday consciousness is far more complicated than we often think. It is a herky-jerky paste-up job, a montage, not an even flow. In Reflection 159: Stop the Press!, I tried to show how an instant recollection of an empty milk bottle changed my life, or at least that one trip to the trash room. Characteristically, I move in and out of focus in relation to my immediate environment. It comes and it goes. Remembering some little thing puts my immediate plans in the shadows. And an overdose of sameness promotes a hunger for stimulation; I come, I see, I move on. And what surprises me is not so much the time travel as the ever-shifting level of attention to detail as it drifts between concrete sensory perception, abstracts from memory, and vague plans for some kind of future. The three time zones are rendered with varying degrees of detail—and I generally don’t even notice the difference.

When we switch too fast under stress, or rely too heavily on preconceived notions, we are apt to make category errors that misrepresent our pasts in the now, or distort current percep-tions in relation to what we can recall in the instant. The clip-art kitty I “saw” when a hinge squeaked and I jumped up to avoid stepping on the tail of a nonexistent cat (Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat) is an example of my confounding a hinge squeak in the present with an imaginary concept of a yeowling feline from the past—in a pastiche that seemed real at the time. This is an out-and-out category error, accounting for a sound by dredging up a preposterous fantasy. I was there and that’s exactly what I did.

When early scientists did not understand the nature of fire, they concocted the concept of phlogiston to account for the source of a flame. It was thought to be the (fictional) impurity phlogiston that burned when released. People didn’t know any better, so a mythical conceptual category had to be custom fitted to the sensory facts. A concept is a placeholder for the sorts of sensory experiences having relevance to our particular outlooks, motives, and values. In a given situation, concepts guide and shape our expectancy until they are fulfilled by specific details provided by the occasion. Concepts are what we look for; percepts are what we actually get. We no longer look for signs of phlogiston. We’ve learned to look for rapid oxidation instead.

Humor operates on a similar plan: it sets up a pregnant situation, creating a kind of expectant tension, which is fulfilled by a punch line that sidesteps our anticipation. Humor depends on category errors or misconceptions leading us astray, only to be set right by the surprising but non-threatening solution to a situation or riddle—like the magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. The punch line of a joke fulfills the humorous situation with a novel flourish. We didn’t see it coming, so laugh with glee, a sure sign of relaxed tension. When we take matters seriously, surprise endings are heresy, so are not allowed.

It is written: God created the universe.

The universe currently exists.

Therefore, God must also exist,

Making whatever happens, happen.

That is basically Osama bin Laden’s point regarding Allah in his “Letter to America” I referred to in my last post. True believers will win against the infidels because they are agents of Allah, who will see that it happen. If you don’t see the humor or irony in the initial assumption’s cropping up in the conclusion as if derived from the evidence, this blog probably isn’t for you. That’s the kind of trouble consciousness gets us into by not distinguishing between the level of detail in concepts and percepts. As my mailbox stands ready to receive its contents on any given day, concepts are mental boxes waiting to be filled by specific sensory details, fleshed-out or embodied, as it were, mythically if not factually. However you put it, concepts are empty containers until given sensory content to substantiate or fulfill them on particular occasions. To mismatch the two is to create category errors, which we mortals are prone to doing all the time.

To take such convenient fictions as entropy, inertia, gravity, evil, sin, Satan, phlogiston, probability, or God herself as explanations for specific events is to switch from one level of consciousness to another midstream without knowing. Resident in the human mind, God is a category error waiting to happen again and again. We have the word; it must label something out there in the world, or so we believe. When concepts in set minds forcefully drive experience, the world is remade according to ideology, as if personal belief could be mapped onto the outer world of sensory events, taming it, cutting it down to the size of the mind rather than allowing the mind to grow by accommodating to actual experience. Creationism and theocracies are ample proof that we are prone to forcing ourselves on the Earth rather than attending to what the master teacher has to show us.

Consciousness is given us so we can learn from experience and act appropriately in a world full of pitfalls and dangers. But we have increasingly come to put that process in reverse, using consciousness to adjust the world to our preferences. If the world doesn’t conform to our idea of what it should be, we whip it into shape by changing the world to our liking, rearranging it so incoming percepts conform to conceptual expectations we already have in mind. Instead of immersing our wild bodies in the flow of wild events—instead of learning the ways of the world—we domesticate the world by breaking it to our beliefs, forcing it to live up to our expectations and specifications. Beyond hubris, that leads to the end of the world as our ancestors once knew it. In the instance of my post office box, it leads to junk mail and endless solicitations for money.

Concepts and percepts can only complement or complete one another; they are not causally related. They arise from different sources of experience, much as my mailbox cannot account for the mail it contains. It gives that mail a place where I can get at it, but there is no causal agency or relationship between them. Such mental slight of hand would be a category error, no matter how much I might want it to explain why things happen as they do. But I can’t blame my mailbox for the bills it contains. The causal agent is the hand of the postal employee who sorts the mail and inserts it into my box, and behind her, those who pay postage to have access to my mind and bank account.

In the realm of the conscious mind, expectation, wishful thinking, and knowing about things share a similar low level of specificity, that is, abstraction. Which is very different from the level on which sensory events actually happen, the level of immediate sensory experience. Even the concept of the color red is colorless until exemplified. Just as my having a mailbox does not imply there is any mail in it, the concept “red” is a kind of code that acknowledges that red exists without providing an example or explaining how the eye sees it. It is more a particular wavelength or energy level, an idea in the mind. The concept of a circle is not a circle; it is more the recipe for generating a circle if you have a compass or a stake in the ground and piece of string. The concept of an automobile is neither Honda nor Chevrolet, though such brands may exemplify the concept. The concept honey cannot elicit the taste—that takes molecules on the tongue. The concept peace cannot calm a battlefield. Ideas are built from concepts in memory; things are built from sensory phenomena in perception. Joined together, related, or balanced as a conscious proposition, memorial concept with existential percept, we can eat strawberry shortcake (sensory fulfillment) for dessert (anticipatory concept), or design a mousetrap perhaps better than the ones we are familiar with. I can even reach into my mailbox and get my mail. But uncoupled and apart, one remains an empty idea, the other an uncategorized percept about which almost nothing is known.

Jokes come in categories: men, women, sex, lawyers, sports, animals, religion, ethnic/national, elevators, etc., or simple challenges such as who?, what?, when?, where?, how?, why? A conceptual situation is set up, creating tension, which the punch line resolves in a specific yet surprising sensory payoff, the release of tension eliciting a smile or laugh, usually from an audience of a particular age or level of experience:

Who was that gentleman I saw you with last night? That was no gentleman, that was my husband.

What do snowmen eat for breakfast? Snowflakes.

Where do snowmen keep their money? In a snow bank.

You know you’re from New York when you think the major food groups are Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Indian.

How do you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it.

Why do hummingbirds hum? They don’t know the words.

Real life situation: Yesterday I came across a group of eight people in a knot trying to figure out how to move a woman in a wheelchair from an icy sidewalk into the passenger seat of a car at the curb. A voice apologized for blocking the sidewalk. Stepping into the street to get around, I asked: “How many people does it take . . . ?” Everybody laughed, the tension eased. They saw I wasn’t put out.

The only mailbox joke I know is from a ten-year-old, so I’ll leave you with that: What do you call a man who sits in your mailbox? Bill.

PO Box 96

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I’d been a Signal Corps photographer in the Army. When I got out I went to work for a photo studio in Manhattan that took pictures for catalog houses like Sears Roebuck. The studio was really three studios, each with photographer (who adjusted lighting and clicked shutters), assistant photographer (who cocked shutters and changed 8×10 film holders), and stylist (who made clothes look good on thin models by taking tucks in back with clothespins). I learned early on that there were two classes of people, photographers and assistants; there was no way for an assistant to cross the barrier between them. Once an assistant, always an assistant.

Sensitive to such distinctions, I noticed that the janitor came to work in suit and tie, and carried his lunch in a briefcase. I figured he did it to show his kids he had an important job in the city. He’d arrive early, change his clothes, and get to work. What he really did was mop the floors. At the end of the day he’d reverse the process, put on the suit, and get on the elevator with an empty briefcase.

To simplify matters, I’ll say there are two kinds of people: doers and thinkers. Hands-on and minds-on. There are all manner of gradations in between, but the basic distinction still holds: labor and management, students and teachers, stage crew and talent. You can tell the difference by looking under fingernails, feeling calluses, noticing who shines his shoes, who wears overalls and who a tweed jacket. 

In Maine, there are fishermen who hold their catch in their hands, and then everybody else. Fishermen look like fishermen. They wear aprons, slickers, and boots, and get wet a lot. The others try to stay away from water and out of the rain if they can. Fishermen are doers. After all these years, they still work with their hands and speak basic English. Many of the rest of us type with our fingertips, work in cubicles, write endless reports, go to meetings, and speak jargon that sounds like a foreign language.

One of the chief reasons I am writing this blog is to figure out how hand workers and mind workers can come to a common understanding about managing natural resources (fish, clams, worms) to guarantee steady catches over the long term. I speak a lot about sustainability and stewardship, which are words labeling conceptual categories, not concrete items such as living lobsters or bags full of bait. Categories don’t smell like a mixture of herring, oil, and gasoline.

As kids we are all much the same, born with a few rudimentary skills centered on our mouths. We eventually learn to hold up our heads, look around, coordinate arms and fingers, and eventually walk. We all go through the play stage of learning how to use our hands. Then we go to school to learn how to use our minds, and that is supposed to lead us on the way out of childhood. Some of us end up putting everything into words and symbols, not coordinated motions. Or if we do practice fine motor skills, we take drum or violin lessons, color within the lines, and strive for neat handwriting. You can’t learn to fell trees in school, raise cattle, dig potatoes, catch lobsters or fish. And if that’s what you want to do in life, then you’re better off apprenticing to someone who does those things for a living. If you work hard enough, long enough, and pay attention, you’ll train your muscles to behave as you want to get the job done.

The classic put-down used to be:  If you can, do; if you can’t, teach. For some reason, our culture turns that around and puts a higher priority on teaching and mind work than doing and making things. While we know that the most important people in any school are the students, not teachers or administrators. The main thing with us seems to be not getting our clothes dirty, which is a sure sign of social status. No mucking out the barn for us. So we dutifully dress in blouses and button-down shirts, stand behind our counters or file into cubicles (much like desks in school), turn on the computer, and have at it, engaging our minds—and little else of our basic equipment such as muscles, senses, and personal judgment.

Broadly speaking, our culture creates two classes of people who can’t talk to each other very easily because their life experience is so different. What they do is so different. How they talk is so different. How they make themselves happen in the world is so different. How their minds work is so different. Either you’re a photographer or a photographer’s assistant, perhaps bringing your lunch in a briefcase or a brown paper bag.

So much for discriminating two sorts of people. In truth, even fishermen and cubicle dwellers are unique individuals, as are we all. The issue is, how do we learn to talk with one another in the spirit of democracy so we can work side-by-side for the good of all people and the one Earth we share in common? Where self-interest and competition split us apart, how do we put ourselves together again in order to deal effectively with dwindling resources, global warming, pollution, poverty, and overconsumption? Many of us seem to find it easier to stand apart, calling those we don’t agree with offensive names, than gather beneath a common banner.

That’s what language is for, but people on fishing boats and people in cubicles tend to develop dialects within their common language that require translation from one to the other. How do they make themselves clear when they meet face-to-face? How do they hear what the other is saying? That’s what schools are supposed to be for, but they are better at emphasizing individual differences than general commonalities. That’s because differences are concrete and recognizable while the commons is an abstract idea you can’t point your finger at. Differences are up-close and personal, while the commons is vague, fuzzy, and apt to be ideological or reduced to a caricature of itself (Uncle Sam, John Bull) or some kind of mascot. Where individuality is specific, unity is symbolic. It is easy to say, “No man is an island,” “God is love,” or “All are one,” but extremely difficult to put into practice. I know there are such places as Fiji, Timbuktu, and Ultima Thule, but I have a hard time picturing them in my mind; to me they are conceptual abstractions, like “objects,” “things,” “items,” “entities,” “geographical locations.”

If we learn and act best when we put our bodies where our values are, then when two people generally have their bodies in different places, to get along they have to shift their consciousness to the place where they meet in order to take the physical presence of the other into full account. If they speak from their customary locations (their respective Aways), they won’t get very far. It works better to acknowledge the other, and move on from there in small steps, always waiting for the other to catch up. Cooperating on a shared task or project makes a good beginning, both taking part in something they can do easily and well. I have seen women sitting in a circle, each spinning yarn or knitting, having a great time. Drinking coffee or eating a meal together might work, but I personally find it hard to talk and eat at the same time.

Once the ice is broken—and it may take some time—the real work can begin. Which is to include the other in your thoughts as you make yourself happen there and then in her presence. Inclusion is the first priority in any group process. Excluding the other is self-defeating if you have to work together toward a goal you both share. Such as sustainable harvests of natural resources, stewardship, or saving the Earth.

The trick is to identify a goal you both can agree on from your separate perspectives. The more specific a goal the better. It’s easy to say we are both human, or both love our children. It’s harder to bring it down to a personal level on which you can identify with each other in equally concrete and meaningful ways. Sharing your biological values might be one way to identify a goal you could work toward together, such as food, shelter, clothing, safety, health, companionship, community, cooperation, learning, and so on.

I once taught a summer workshop built around finding a common project that a diverse group of eighteen high school students (who had never met) could not only work on but finish together in six weeks. That was the summer Apollo astronauts first landed on the moon. Students decided to bring out a publication commemorating that event, each contributing to the overall project, in addition to being responsible for content and layout of one page. Within three days, animosity blossomed within the group, so I included addressing that in the lesson plan. I identified pairs of students who didn’t get along, and gave them the afternoon off, with the stipulations that they had to stay within five feet of each other the whole time, and report back how it went for both of them. Each of the nine pairs worked things out between them, many coming back best friends. Another exercise was for each student to do something with the class to prove they were alive (however they interpreted those instructions). One girl led us up to the roof of the three-story building, then left, locking the door. Being trapped together is a wonderful way to build group spirit. I can’t remember how we got down, but we were up there for several hours.

Thinking about how close those students were to one another at the end of the workshop, I identified facing a common challenge, humor, and respect for both originality and ability as key factors in binding the disparate students into a cohesive and productive group. Of course they were all volunteers, but there was no way they could tell what they were getting into when they signed up. The workshop was built around their unique contributions, but no one knew in advance what they might be.

How about having fishermen, researchers, shorefront property owners, wildlife watchers, and kayakers, for instance, join forces to produce a portrait of the part of the Maine coast they all share in common? Each could tell her own version of the story of that part of the coast as he knew it. Could that work? Not only would it provide a starting project, but it would serve as a reference ever after, a document of what actually happened. The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, does 15-week workshops in developing skills in writing, radio, and photography. As one student said: “15 weeks at Salt rearranged 80% of my brain. The person I was when I arrived at Salt was not the person I was when I left.” I think a bay-wide project of this nature could be a life-changing event, bringing people together instead of perpetuating the social divide between them.

Including the other in your loop of engagement with your personal surroundings seems an obvious place to begin working together toward a common understanding. Getting their body and your body in the same room together so you can interact in a safe location, engaging conscious minds with each other, starting to build a constructive relationship instead of trying to wear the other down. Two kinds of people? No, there are almost seven billion. Things happen only when a few gather together in mutual engagement. Then there is no limit to what they can do, no matter what the odds.

Two Lobsters